- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

As Al Franken’s memorable “Saturday Night Live” character Stuart Smalley might affirm: He’s good enough, smart enough and doggone it, people like him.

The same could now be said about Mr. Franken as a political candidate. The former SNL comic and onetime “Air America” radio host has surprised many by becoming the Democrats’ front-runner in the fight for Minnesota’s Senate seat up for election this year.

While Minnesotans have been open-minded — they elected former professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura to be governor in 1998 — some had dismissed Mr. Franken as a celebrity candidate and political gadfly with no real shot when he signed off of his liberal radio show and announced his Senate run in 2007.

Now the Minnesota native, 56, who moved back to his home state from New York in 2005, is leading incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman 49 percent to 46 percent in the latest Rasmussen poll, taken last month.

That showing, and the $7.2 million he raised for his bid in 2007, make him a serious contender, particularly after his chief Democratic rival, Mike Ciresi, dropped out of the race on Monday.

It also represents a slide for Mr. Coleman, who in 2002 won the Senate seat held by Paul Wellstone, a liberal Democrat who was killed in a plane crash while campaigning for re-election that year.

Mr. Coleman held a commanding lead in polls over the Harvard-educated Mr. Franken just a year ago. But that has evaporated as Mr. Franken, a Wellstone acolyte, has picked up key union endorsements and raised significant money.

Sarah Janecek, publisher of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter and a Republican activist, said she is surprised Mr. Franken has done so well, but adds that “celebrity is everything.” Still, she wondered how his negativity in his books and political commentary will play in the Midwest, far from the acid-throwing political scene in Washington.

“Al Franken comes across as negative and mean-spirited, and that is just not the Minnesota way,” she said.

“When you have a Barack Obama talking about not red states or blue states, but a United States, you could not in your wildest dreams picture Al Franken saying the same thing,” she said. “He’s too divisive a person to be united.”

But Wy Spano, director of the Center for Advocacy and Political Leadership at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, said Mr. Franken earned his status by doing basic work to connect with influential members of his party.

“He’s worked very, very hard,” Mr. Spano said. “He’s been in every county in Minnesota. He used his celebrity during the last election cycle to raise money for candidates all over the state. It became quite a thing for your local candidate for the state Senate to be able to have Al Franken be at his fundraiser. He’s built up a lot of goodwill.”

Mr. Franken, he added, is hardly an intellectual lightweight. He said that as a campaigner, Mr. Franken has a hard time staying on message and is given to wonkery at times, wanting to delve into the depth of issues as he takes to the stump.

Mr. Spano said Mr. Franken also is helped by political conditions, giving Mr. Coleman “a nearly impossible task” in getting re-elected.

“The economy is in the tank here as elsewhere,” he said.

Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey said Mr. Franken’s numbers will drop.

“The more Minnesotans kind of look under the hood at Al Franken, they are not liking what they see,” he said. “In the months ahead, we hope to unveil the real Al Franken, not the celebrity. Representing Minnesota in the Senate is not a funny job, it’s a very serious job.”

He said Minnesota Democrats who consider themselves moderates will turn to Mr. Coleman over “the extreme progressive politics that Al Franken is offering,” though he said the race will be tight.

“In Minnesota, there is no such thing as an easy race for Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “We expect that this will be a very close race.”

A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL) said they remain neutral since another Democrat, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, continues to campaign against Mr. Franken for the DFL nomination.

Mr. Pallmeyer was running a distant third before trial lawyer Mr. Ciresi dropped out this week.

Mr. Franken earned the ire of conservatives as an author of two best-selling books, “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot,” in 1996, and “Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right,” in 2003. He took to the airwaves in 2004 as a host of his own show on “Air America,” a left-leaning counterbalance to conservative talk radio, but left after announcing he would run for the Senate.

There have been bumps on his political road. Mr. Franken came under fire last week when he agreed to pay a $25,000 fine to the state of New York because his business, Al Franken Inc., failed to carry workers’ compensation insurance for a three-year period from 2002 to 2005.

His campaign, which said the fine could be an error, acknowledged to reporters that he only discovered the matter after it was reported by a blogger.

His campaign said the repeated notices from New York were sent to his address there, while Mr. Franken had moved back to Minnesota. The campaign said the fine will be paid from his company funds, not out of campaign money.

Miss Janecek said the matter may yet trip up Mr. Franken, who has so far received strong union endorsements.

“He didn’t pay workers’ compensation and the state of New York fined him,” she said. “That is pretty inconceivable to labor in a state like Minnesota, where workers’ compensation is a top labor issue.”

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