ST. PAUL, Minn. - Is the Minnesota Senate race a referendum on comedian-turned-politician Al Franken, or on President George W. Bush and the economy?
If Democrats have their way, voters will see next Tuesday as an economic referendum and they’ll sweep Franken to victory over Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley. Emphasizing the bad news, Franken campaigned Wednesday at Inver Hills Community College south of St. Paul.
“Twenty thousand homes have been foreclosed upon in Minnesota in the past year,” he told the 150 students who turned out to hear him. “And 170,000 Minnesotans are looking for a job that they can’t find. That’s the highest unemployment rate in 22 years.”
Coleman won the Senate seat six years ago after Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash on Oct. 25, 2002, ten days before the election.
“If we’re going to take back Paul’s seat… if we’re going to give Barack Obama the 60 Democratic senators that he needs,” Franken said, "then Democratic foot soldiers will need to knock on doors and make phone calls for the next five days."
'We take back our country'
“This is the year we take back our country,” he said Tuesday night to a cheering overflow crowd at an abortion rights event at a mansion on Summit Avenue in St. Paul.
With Barkley now getting about 15 percent in opinion polls, all Franken needs to do is get a bit more than 40 percent of the total vote to win.
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Just the votes of the most fervent Obama partisans — even if they were a minority of the Minnesota electorate — might be enough to make Franken the new senator. He may not need the votes of many independents and centrists.
But the question is how many of those independents and centrists vote for Obama, and then choose Barkley, or perhaps even Coleman?
Noting the Obama effect in this year's race, Coleman said Wednesday that he used the “hope” theme when he was mayor of St. Paul, years before Obama walked onto the political stage.
“For whatever reason, Sen. Obama has picked up on what I think folks are looking for, but I’ve done it,” he said. “And there’s such a contrast between me and Al Franken on that issue…. The editorial endorsements talk about that: This is not a time for exacerbating the partisan divide.”
Coleman has won the backing of the both of the Twin Cities’ newspapers, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, as well as of several other newspapers across the state.
Minnesota political insiders say some Democrats are still not keen on Franken, and the polling data seems to reflect that.
Effect of Obama 'fever'
This is a year when Obama 'fever' is as hot or hotter in Minnesota then in any other state. In the latest Minnesota Public Radio poll, Obama is ahead of McCain by 19 points, 56 to 37 percent.
So, Franken was asked Wednesday, if Obama is so far ahead, why do Minnesota polls show Franken underperforming Obama, essentially tied with Coleman?
Franken replied, “Well, we’ll see what happens, won’t we?”
Next Tuesday could be a referendum on Franken if voters consider alleged episodes from his past, including a report that he suggested a skit for “Saturday Night Live” in 1995 featuring the rape of CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl.
The most remarkable television ad of the campaign has been one in which Franken’s wife Franni does a very un-Minnesota thing: she discusses her alcoholism and how Franken helped her confront it.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chief Sen. Charles Schumer gave the ad a rave review, calling it “a game-changer” and one of the two best of the year (the other being an ad mocking Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s age).
The ad was apparently an attempt to persuade voters that Franken is not simply sardonic, but that he is a man with a heart.
Franken attacks Justice Alito
But his sardonic side did emerge Tuesday night.
In his speech to the abortion rights gathering in St. Paul, co-sponsored by NARAL Pro-Choice America, Franken reminded the crowd of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s onetime membership in a group called Concerned Alumni of Princeton.
Alito listed his membership in the group on his application for a job in the Reagan administration in 1981.
What the group was concerned about, Franken said, “was that women and blacks were getting into Princeton,” he said. “That was OK (for Alito) because being a racist and a sexist was a good calling card for the Reagan administration.”
After mentioning the importance of Supreme Court vacancies that may come as early as next year, Franken said “I want to get to that 60” — meaning 60 Democratic senators, a filibuster-proof majority that would allow Obama, if he is president, to put justices on the Supreme Court without effective Republican opposition.
Franken then mocked the just-convicted Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens. “It is sad that such a distinguished…” His deadpan voice trailed off as the crowd laughed and jeered.
What will happen to Lieberman?
He then mused that if the Democrats got to 60, “Of course, one of those would be (Sen. Joe) Lieberman, so I’m not sure…”
When a person in the crowd said, “Get 61 and get rid of Lieberman,” Franken seemed to defend the Connecticut senator saying, in a wry tone, “Sen. Lieberman votes OK… he’s a Democrat, in many ways.”
Either it was the words themselves, or it was his deadpan delivery, but that line got a huge laugh from the crowd.
Standing at Franken’s side, a clearly uncomfortable Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared to want to get off the topic of Lieberman.
Asked Wednesday whether he’d been implying that he’d like Lieberman out of the Senate Democratic caucus after the election, Franken said, “No, I didn’t say that at all — I don’t think. I didn’t mean that at all. I think Sen. Lieberman is a Democrat on so many different issues and I think we want to keep him in the caucus.”
In his speech to the NARAL gathering, Coleman also showed his wry side when he said he supported a NARAL-backed bill which would require the Defense Department to make available to female soldiers the emergency contraceptive known as “Plan B.”
“These women need these services. These are young women. And the ratio of men to women is such that,” he paused and chuckled, “ — they need them.”
Coleman, meanwhile, portrays himself as someone who is a humble, earnest consensus-seeker.
Coleman's first campaign stop of the day Tuesday was at the Ugly Mug diner in Farmington, a town in Dakota County, south of St. Paul, which Bush won by a narrow margin in 2004. Coleman told reporters that voters “are looking for folks who do more than complain.”
'Mayor' stitched in his underwear
He said his approach was the pragmatic one he had used as the mayor of St. Paul. “I may have ‘senator’ in front of my name, but I still have ‘mayor’ stitched in my underwear.”
He told the crowd of about 200 supporters, “We can overcome that very bitter partisan divide in Washington.” He said it was “the obligation of leadership not to divide, not to be angry, not to tear apart, not to put down, but to lift up.”
He noted at a stop at Khoury’s restaurant in suburban Inver Grove Heights that “there’s an anger out there” about the decline in people’s retirement accounts. A few minutes later, he repeated, “There’s a lot of anger out there.” He seemed to be hoping that anger would not be turned against him.
A look at Coleman’s votes shows him to be a fairly consistent GOP loyalist, but he navigates carefully on some votes, demonstrating his distance from conservatives on some issues.
A year ago, for instance, Coleman broke with most Republicans and joined with most Democrats in voting to move ahead with the Dream Act, allowing illegal immigrants under the age of 30 to remain in the United States and gain legal status if they attend college or join the military.
Coleman also wins a respectable 73 out of 100 vote rating from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), a group that usually supports Democratic candidates. His LCV rating is the second highest of any Senate Republican, after Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, who, like Coleman, finds himself in as tight re-election battle in a state that Obama is likely to win by a big margin.
On the other hand, Coleman did vote to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts and for the man Franken derided as “a racist and a sexist,” Justice Alito.