After recalling his campaign swings through his home state of Minnesota on behalf of the late Paul Wellstone, comedian, author and activist Al Franken closed his last Air America radio show with an announcement that he will be running in 2OO8 “for Paul’s seat.”

Franken’s challenge to Republican incumbent Norm Coleman, who took Wellstone’s place in the Senate after the popular incumbent was killed in a fall 2OO2 plane crash, was expected. What was intriguing was Franken’s signal with the broadcast announcement that his will be a certain kind of candidacy, run very much in the Wellstone tradition.

Humility was the order of the day.

Instead of grand pronouncements, Franken said he would spend the coming months “listening to Minnesota,” with a schedule that in coming days will take him to Nashwauk, Duluth, Rochester, Mankato and Moorhead — not the usual mid-winter stomping grounds of celebrity contenders.

He’ll begin tomorrow morning at a Minneapolis health care clinic where doctors and nurses volunteer to care for the uninsured.

The visit to the clinic will highlight a signature issue of Franken’s campaign — getting the federal government focused on the task of assuring that all Americans have access to affordable quality health care. ‘

Rejecting the conservative premise that government can do little or no good, Franken began his campaign by offering a contemporary take on the New Deal liberalism of Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party stalwarts such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Wellstone.

“Your government should have your back,” the man who has spent the last three years serving as the voice of liberal talk radio said in a video produced for his campaign. “That should be our mission in Washington, the one FDR (President Franklin D. Rooosevelt) gave us during another challenging time: freedom from fear.”

Just as Wellstone did when he launched his challenge to another Minnesota Republican senator in 199O, as an academic and activist who had never held elected office, Franken knows he must convince Minnesotans — first within the DFL, where he will face a challenge from wealthy lawyer Mike Ciresi and perhaps others, and if he is nominated then in a fall contest with Coleman that will be one of the most intense in the country — that he in a credible contender.Franken began by stating the obvious: that he is not a “typical politician.”

In Minnesota, a state where the voters elected a professional wrestler governor in 1998, and a college professor senator in 199O, that’s an advantage. But it did not prevent predictably political attacks.

Telegraphing Republican fears that Franken’s celebrity, fund-raising skills and familiarity with issues that have been regular topics on his talk show make the affable comedian a daunting challenger to Coleman — a political creation of White House political czar Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney who is broadly perceived to be one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the country — Minnesota Republican Party chairman Ron Carey was spinning hard and fast on Wednesday afternoon. “Given his blind partisanship and extreme anger, Al Franken is the last person Minnesotans need in the United States Senate,” growled Carey. “While Sen. Norm Coleman continues to work with all sides for the betterment of our stateand nation, Franken offers Minnesotans nothing but polarization and vitriolic personal attacks.”

The joke was on Carey, however, as he sounded far more vitriolic than Franken.

While the Republican was spewing vitriol, the Democrat was self-deprecating, beginning his campaign with an admission that he needed to convince Minnesotans to elect as their senator a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus who once penned a book titled: Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.

“Minnesotans have a right to be skeptical about whether I’m ready forthis challenge and to wonder how seriously I would take theresponsibility that I’m asking you to give me,” Franken said in a video message featured on his campaign website.

“I want you to know: nothing means more to me than making governmentwork better for the working families of this state,” Franken said. “And over the next 20 months I look forward to proving to you that I take these issues seriously.”

If his Minnesota-nice, Wellstone-referencing entry into the race is any indication, Franken will not have much problem proving he is serious — and, in turn, being taken seriously by the voters of a state that has proven its willingness over the years to take chances on candidates who are not “typical politicians.”


John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”