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Dispatch from Minnesota: Al Franken v. Norm Coleman | The Nation

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Dispatch from Minnesota: Al Franken v. Norm Coleman

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AP ImagesFranken after he accepted the Democratic endorsement for US Senate Senate from Minnesota at the party's state convention.

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Alexander Zaitchik
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist

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Saturday, July 12, Humboldt High School auditorium, St. Paul. Al Franken has just taken the podium to address the central committee of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, a rowdy force of several hundred seated by district. The crowd falls silent as the candidate adjusts the microphone. "I filed my paperwork this week," Franken tells the party leaders. And after a perfectly timed pause, adds, "It went flawlessly."

This one-two, uttered by any other candidate, would have fallen flat or made no sense. But Franken is not any other candidate, and with his delivery, the line is funny. Very funny. The auditorium fills not with the polite chuckles common to candidate jokes, but with genuine belly laughs. The veteran comedian turned senatorial candidate slays the room with ease.

Franken then gets down to business. "We have 115 days to go," he says. "Now is the time. We have to get up early and stay up late. Canvass until our feet hurt. Then pick up the phone." To motivate the troops, he recounts a story illustrating the passion and endurance of the late Paul Wellstone, whose seat Franken and the DFL are determined to take back from the current occupant and usurper, Republican Norm Coleman.

Wellstone's memory is alive and strong among Minnesota's DFL, and Franken's anecdote about the late senator, who died with his wife and daughter in a plane crash while campaigning in 2002, sends the energy in the room to fever pitch. Franken leaves the auditorium to a rafter-shaking chant of "Go, Al, Go!", the candidate pumping his fist in the air as he makes a dramatic exit.

Not long ago this scene of DFL party unity was hard to imagine. At the DFL endorsing convention in June, Franken won the party's official stamp of approval following a vigorous debate over Franken's suitability to carry the DFL banner. At the center of the debate was a moderately racy Playboy article Franken penned in 2000, dredged up by the opposition research office of the Minnesota GOP. Some Democratic leaders felt that the article, entitled "Porn-o-Rama," was too much for Upper Midwest sensibilities. Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum spoke for many when she expressed sharp fears that Minnesota Democrats would suffer from sharing a ballot with someone responsible for "pornographic writings that are indefensible." Minnesota's Keith Ellison, Congress' first elected Muslim, also expressed public discomfort with the article, but stopped short of asking Franken to step aside.

It's true that Minnesota often has a PG feel to it. In the capital, signs in light-rail cars urge passengers to watch their language ("Keep it down, and keep it clean"), and adults can frequently be overheard proclaiming, "Oh, my gosh!" But Franken survived the controversy over perceived bad taste to win the DFL endorsement in the first round of voting. He emerged with no visible political scars. A post Porn-gate Quinnipiac poll found Franken running strong with women, the demographic Democrats feared would be most put off by some of the his more explicit satire.

More than a month after the rockiest period for Franken's candidacy--the DFL convention debate followed two mini-scandals involving Franken's failure to pay income taxes in multiple states, and to provide compensation insurance for some of his New York employees--a July 14 Rasmussen poll finds Franken leading statewide for the first time, with 44 percent of the vote to Norm Coleman's 42 percent. These poll results were issued the same day last week that Jesse Ventura announced in a strangely bitter appearance on Larry King Live that he would continue his surfer lifestyle in Baja, Mexico, rather than compete for Coleman's Senate seat as an independent. Although Franken's camp put on a brave face with regard to a potential Ventura run--"We're not really worried about what he may or may not do," one staffer told me day before Ventura's announcement--the former governor's entry could have complicated the race in unpredictable ways, possibly cutting against Franken by splitting the anti-incumbent and antiwar votes. At the least, a two-man race is simpler for everyone. "We're looking forward to having an official two-person race focused on the issues," said Dusty Trice, a staffer with the campaign. "All of these hypothetical three-way polls were a distraction."

With every national and state political wind at his back, this race should be Al Franken's to lose. Minnesota is a blue state where Barack Obama currently leads John McCain by 18 percent. Coleman's recent efforts to distance himself from the President and reposition himself as an moderate Republican will have to contend with the fact that he has voted with the President nearly 90 percent of the time over the course of his term. As recently as last month, Coleman attended a fundraiser with and publicly embraced the President he once called "part of God's answer." According to Hannah August of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Norm Coleman is "one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country."

Franken's war chest will not lack the resources needed to exploit this vulnerability. In the last fundraising quarter, Franken raised just over $2 million, the same as Coleman. Altogether, the Franken campaign has raised more than $11 million, with $4.2 million currently in the bank to Coleman's $7.2 million. But Coleman's burn rate is increasing, while Franken's is slowing way down, now that his campaign infrastructure is in place and humming.

Coffer numbers paint only part of the picture. The Franken campaign has a secret weapon in the form of a massive advantage in volunteer effort and energy that first became apparent last winter. DFL leaders were shocked in February when 215,000 people showed up for the state's presidential caucus, nearly four times the usual number, more than half of whom were first-time voters. "There were people voting on Post-it notes and voting on lawns because there was no room in the buildings," says Andy Barr, Franken's spokesperson.

Enthusiasm for Barack Obama finds a down-ticket corollary in Franken's Senate bid. As soon as Franken announced his candidacy 4,500 volunteers signed up; fifty now volunteer full-time. "We had to move from the four-room Air America offices to general election headquarters a year early," says Jess Macintosh, Franken's press secretary. "So many people were coming to the house parties that Al was having to repeat speeches." The overwhelming influx of people and checks led the nascent campaign to invent the term "happy problems" to describe situations that they didn't expect to deal with. One "happy problem" was ventilation. When the campaign hosted an open house to raise money for the new headquarters, so many people crowded into a volunteer's home that a sauna was created. "It was literally raining inside the house," says McIntosh.

Both in style and content, Franken's grassroots campaign is inspired by his old friend Paul Wellstone, the latest member of Minnesota's large pantheon of liberal patron saints. Like Wellstone, Franken built support for his candidacy by mounting an aggressive statewide campaign. A full year before the DFL's endorsing convention, Franken began touring the state, including regular trips to the northern mining country called The Range. He attended "bean-feeds" (pot-luck fundraisers) and county fairs where he made the case for a broad progressive agenda based on four pillars: energy and green jobs, universal healthcare, more funding for education, and ending the war in Iraq. Labor groups were among the first to acknowledge that Franken carried Wellstone's mantle.

"Like Paul, Al went around the state and stood with workers, headlined fundraisers for union-backed candidates, made it known that he was with them and would stand in a picket line," says Diane O'Brien, of Minnesota's AFL-CIO office. "Paul Wellstone used to say the greatest complement he could give anyone was that they were a good worker. Al is a good worker. He understands what it is to work for a living."

Wellstone's legacy also lives on in Franken's staff. Franken's finance director was Wellstone's; Wellstone vets also populate Franken's field staff. (Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone's former campaign manager, runs Barack Obama's Minnesota operation.)

"The enduring legacy of Paul is that he showed us how to run a grassroots campaign that was brave and didn't back down," says Andy Barr, Franken's spokesman. "He taught a generation of Minnesotans how to win as strong progressives. Which is exactly what we plan to do in November."

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