ST. PAUL, MINN.—Al Franken's infamous put-downs could fill a book. Many have. He lampooned Rush Limbaugh as a "big fat idiot," and he dismissed Ann Coulter as a "nutcase." Today, Franken has cleaned up his act considerably as he tries to sell Minnesota on ousting his latest target, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.
At first glance, Franken's Senate challenge seems hard to take seriously. A fixture on Saturday Night Live for 15 seasons, the actor-comedian, author, screenwriter, producer, and radio host has a fat résumé: seven uso tours, six books, five Emmy Awards, two Grammys, and a degree from Harvard. Impressive, yes, but with the exception of the Ivy League cred, none common in the world's most exclusive club—Comity Central, if you will—since law ranks as the top professional background in the Senate. Still, Franken is the Democrats' best hope in this competitive state, and he's poised to win the state party's endorsement June 7. Nationally, the political climate favors Democrats, who've picked up three House seats in special elections, one last week in Mississippi, since March. Democrats now control the Senate with a 51-to-49 voting majority, but the gop has abandoned its goal of retaking control of the chamber. Instead, Republicans are fighting to keep as many Senate seats as they have—and Coleman's could be Exhibit a. Other hot races are playing out in Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, and Alaska.
With 5.2 million people, Minnesota boasts the nation's highest voter turnout—officials say 80 percent could cast a ballot November 4—and has not gone for a Republican presidential candidate since Nixon in 1972, longer than any other state. That's a boon for Franken; so is the unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the war.
Still, he must convince voters in cities and towns across Minnesota. On this night, he is in Kandiyohi County, where farmers raise turkeys and grow corn and beets. It's about 75 miles west of the Minneapolis suburb where Franken grew up.
The event, a potluck supper and low-dollar auction (Franken himself will spend the most on an item—$2,200) that benefits the county Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, would normally draw an audience of 50, but with Franken's name on the invitation, the attendance doubles, says state Rep. Al Juhnke.
In an appeal to the crowd, Franken describes middle-class roots, defends a career steeped in high-octane satire, and sketches a rationale for his bid. He touts universal healthcare and an economy that "works for everybody." He says when people are told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps—but lack boots—the government should step in. He cites his wife's family, describing her widowed mother left to care for five children after their father died in a car accident coming home from work in a Maine paper mill. Social Security survivor's benefits helped them make it, he says.
Then Franken turns to what he is most known for—performance art. He caps what could be called "Thursday Night Live" by drawing, before his audience, the 48 contiguous United States. "When I was a young boy, Alaska and Hawaii were not part of the Union, and I refuse to draw them," he quips. The map sells in the auction for $375. This slice of campaign life deceives, though. The race is expected to be a nasty and costly fight. Coleman leads in overall fundraising, $13 million to Franken's $9 million. But Franken has been bringing in big bucks, some from Hollywood pals, and outraising Coleman for many months.
Franken trails Coleman in the polls, plus he's taken hits for a series of tax woes. Political scientist Larry Jacobs at the University of Minnesota called Franken's failure to settle these matters early on by doing "opposition research" on himself an "amateur blunder."
The nature of taxes, arcane and complicated, makes a short, persuasive explanation a challenge, says political scientist Steven Schier of Carleton College, meaning doubts could linger. And Franken's tax troubles fit that bill. Among other problems, he just acknowledged paying $70,000 in back taxes and penalties to 17 states where he spoke or made appearances from 2003 to 2006; he blamed his accountant for incorrectly distributing the taxes to states where he lived, New York and Minnesota. Interviews bear out that Minnesotans know the outlines of the tax problems and that could hurt him. Selena Dieringer, 25, who manages a skin-care store, says she likes Franken and may vote for him, but "a lot of things got brought up with his credibility and taxes." She adds: "If you have a skeleton in your closet, it's going to come out. So it's best to resolve it before you begin your bid for office." Some counter that Coleman, a former Democrat who left to join the gop in 1996, has an image problem, too, including Franken, who has called him a "windsock."