Tuesday, February 12, 2008

HASTINGS, Minn. (AP) — In the 1980s, Al Franken was cracking jokes on “Saturday Night Live” while Mike Ciresi, his chief rival for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate this year, was serving as general counsel to the government of India in a landmark lawsuit over a catastrophic industrial accident.

A decade later, Mr. Franken was writing books like “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” and Mr. Ciresi was leading Minnesota’s lawsuit against Big Tobacco, winning a $6 billion settlement.

Despite his impressive resume, Mr. Ciresi finds himself trailing Mr. Franken in the Democratic contest. The comedian-turned-candidate has raised millions more, lined up the most important labor endorsements and dominated news coverage.

To offset that, the multimillionaire trial lawyer is delivering a simple argument to Democratic regulars: He is more electable than Mr. Franken.

“Al Franken has made a living calling people names,” Mr. Ciresi said in an interview.

Democrats see a strong opportunity this year to unseat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, hoping to drag him down with his support for unpopular Bush administration policies, particularly the war in Iraq. Mr. Coleman was elected in 2002 after Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash, and many Democrats still feel the seat is rightfully theirs.

Republicans have appeared nearly as eager to take on Mr. Franken. For months, the state GOP and right-wing bloggers have exhumed dozens of edgy jokes, off-color remarks and sarcastic asides from Mr. Franken’s long career as a comedian, writer and broadcaster. In a fundraising letter in October, the Coleman campaign asked donors for help in running against the “vitriolic, partisan comedian” with a “long history of fringe-left rhetoric and bitter partisan attacks.”

Talk like that has some Democrats worried.

“I just think there are a lot of things Al Franken has said over the years that are going to sound harsh and they’re going to sound in some cases outrageous,” said Allan Spear, former state Senate president and a Ciresi supporter.

“I’m afraid we’re going to end up with a campaign in which the focus is on Al Franken’s record rather than Norm Coleman’s record.”

The Franken campaign rejects that argument. Franken spokesman Andy Barr said it is “a little naive” to think the Republicans “will throw up their hands and admit defeat” if Mr. Ciresi gets the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Franken held a wide lead over Mr. Ciresi, 32 percent to 17 percent, in a recent poll from Minnesota Public Radio and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Mr. Franken, 56, and Mr. Ciresi, 61, aren’t that different on the issues — both speak about economic justice for the middle class, fixing the health care system and getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. But Mr. Franken has picked up some crucial endorsements, including that of the state teachers union.

Union President Tom Dooher said: “We just feel the energy Franken has created is one people can get behind and can be excited about.”

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