Franken, Coleman Duel for Shell-Shocked Voters

Thursday, 18 Sep 2008 12:36 PM

By Dave Eberhart

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As the Barack Obama and John McCain ad campaigns turn more and more negative, their national battle royale is superimposed on another bitter political feud between Minnesota Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and his challenger, comedian and author Al Franken — a contest that has screeched to a dead heat, with both candidates suffering backlash from a reeling electorate.

According to the Washington Post’s latest analysis, 77 percent of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s ads have gone negative since the GOP convention, with Republican rival John McCain striking negative blows in 56 percent of his media messages.

No one, however, has yet calculated who has been more negative in the stormy Minnesota U.S. Senate race — perhaps because it has been a brutal fistfight since the get-go.

The Coleman campaign's latest roundhouse blow features an ad entitled “Angry Al,” a 30-second spot that captures serial vignettes of Franken in rough-talking tantrums about, among other things, business-as-usual in Washington.

As Franken launches into his tirades, the question runs across the screen: “Does Al Franken have the temperament to be U.S. Senator?”

Hardly indicative of someone who would make that extra effort to reach across the aisle to make things happen on Capitol Hill, the Coleman campaign concludes in its rampaging ad that such behavior “would significantly undercut Al Franken’s ability to get anything done for Minnesota.”

For its part, the Franken campaign — between charges that Coleman is lathered and panting as a workhorse for special interests — likes to lash out that the two-term St. Paul Mayor is someone not only too close to the unpopular president but as a sitting senator “morphed into an attack dog for President Bush, and in the process ... demeaned the U.S. Senate and embarrassed many of his constituents.”

The "Franken for U.S. Senate" Web site goes so far as to cloak Coleman with the Karl Rove mantle: “It’s one thing for Coleman to introduce Bush at a Twin Cities rally or to appear at a Republican convention to extol Bush’s virtues and bash the opposition. It’s quite another for him to behave as though he were a Republican political operative taking cues from Karl Rove.”

Whether Minnesota voters are buying into this unprecedented slugfest is another issue.

In a recent poll conducted by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, both candidates are apparently shooting themselves in the foot with the unrelenting political fisticuffs.

According to that poll, since May, the number viewing Coleman unfavorably has risen from 33 percent to 45 percent, while Franken’s unfavorable marks have gone from 39 percent to 46 percent.

Curiously, however, the poll turned up a bit of silver lining in the storm clouds — for Franken. Forty percent say they view him favorably — a pick-up of 7 percentage points from those who gave him a favorable review in May.

In more bad news for Coleman, however, fewer voters look favorably at Coleman, compared with the May poll. He now stands at 47 percent — down from 53 percent last spring.

The real winner in the gloves-off contest may very well be Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley.

Barkley, a founder of the Independence Party, unwittingly paved the way for the Jesse Ventura phenomenon — the former wrestler and action star who stunned the country with his independent 1998 gubernatorial victory.

Barkley went on to serve in the Ventura administration, and after the tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in a plane crash in October 2002, Ventura appointed Barkley to fill the final two months of Wellstone’s term.

According to the New York Times, Barkley’s biggest fans are disaffected voters who see the country being led in the wrong direction — the same mind-set that Franken must win over if he is to oust Coleman in November.

The Barkley effect is strong enough, says one pollster, that he suggests Franken would be in the lead if not for Barkley.

“Franken could be in the lead if he didn’t have Barkley in the race,” poll director Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota told Minnesota Public Radio recently. If Barkley “continues to gather steam, it’s very hard to see how Franken can win.”

At last count, 8 percent of likely voters say they want to send Barkley back to Washington.

Franken the Campaigner

But if Franken is unrelenting in his attacks on Coleman, he also is unrelenting in the energy he expends campaigning around the state.

Slavishly following the grass-roots campaign model inspired by his friend Paul Wellstone, Franken started early and has continued strong. A year before the Democratic-Farmer-Labor’s endorsing convention, Franken began blanketing the state, attending pot-luck fundraisers and county fairs where he made a simple straightforward case for his candidacy.

Franken touts a progressive agenda based on energy and green jobs, universal healthcare, increased funding for education, and, most pointedly, concluding the conflict in Iraq.

Labor groups listened and were intrigued, according to a report in The Nation.

“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,” said 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.”

For his part, Coleman has been kept busy defending himself from the stinging showers of slings and arrows, going so far as to establish a special section in his campaign’s Web site to refute the challenger’s allegations.

The preamble to “DeFranking Franken’s Falsehoods” speaks volumes:

“Franken takes such liberty with the truth, it’s a wonder that he can remember where his deception begins and the dishonesty ends.

“While Norm Coleman was listening to our commanders in Iraq, and insisting on tangible progress and making it clear that Americans were looking for light at the end of the tunnel, Al Franken wanted to cut off funding for our troops, going so far as saying he would force the president to cut off funding for American troops who were fighting for their own lives and the safety and security of Iraq.”

The Coleman campaign also has spent a lot of time and energy casting the candidate as an independent voter in the U.S. Senate, breaking often from the Bush agenda.

They like to point to a Washington Post vote analysis that concluded that Coleman is the seventh-most-iindependent member of Congress; or to a National Journal report that ranked Coleman as a Senate centrist in 2004, 2006, 2007; or to a Congressional Quarterly finding that ranked him among the most independent Republican senators.

The campaign highlights Coleman’s votes to override presidential vetoes of the Farm Bill and the Water Resources Development Act, oppose drilling in ANWR, support the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, deliver disaster assistance for farmers, and increase funding for the Low Income Heating Assistance Program.

Meanwhile, however, the details continue to be muffled by the sheer din of the political combat.

No sooner was “Angry Al” hitting the airwaves when a subdued and statesmanlike Franken answered the out-of-control charges in his own spot:

“I’m sure you’ve seen Norm Coleman’s ads showing old clips of me in some pretty, well, passionate moments. Look, I’m not a politician and I guess I get outraged. And sometimes I’ve gone too far,” Franken says in the ad.

“But my question is: With the price of gas and groceries and health care crushing Minnesota families, and Washington too busy taking care of the special interests to help — why isn’t Norm Coleman outraged?”

Not to give up the last word to his opponent, Coleman issued the following response to Franken’s comeback:

“Standing up and fighting for Minnesotans isn’t a contest to see who can lose their self-control as evidence of their passion to serve.

“Sometimes we disagree passionately with one another, but we don't taunt, we don’t point fingers, we don't scream and we don't lose control. There is virtue in passion, but there’s also the need to be able to control yourself and to serve the people of Minnesota with dignity and respect.”

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