Comedian Plays It Straight In Minnesota Campaign;
GOP Has Video Footage
By JUNE KRONHOLZ
The Wall Street Journal
September 7, 2007; Page A1
MINNEAPOLIS -- A man walks into a political campaign and calls his opponent for high public office the president's lackey -- no, actually, he says something cruder, more insulting.
Could that help decide which party controls the U.S. Senate?
The man is Al Franken, the 56-year-old former "Saturday Night Live" comedian and the bane of conservative talk-radio. The campaign is for the Senate seat now held by Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman.
And the question is no joke. Mr. Coleman is widely considered one of the Senate's most vulnerable members. His defeat would help secure the Democrats' control of the closely divided Senate.
Mr. Franken still needs to win the Democratic nomination before he can face Mr. Coleman. But with 15 months to go before the general election, he's competitive in the opinion polls. He has raised more money than Mr. Coleman has, with the help of contributors including comedians Dan Aykroyd and Robin Williams and cartoonist Garry Trudeau. His $3.3 million war chest puts him among the year's top congressional fund-raisers.
But in a 30-year comedy career, much of Mr. Franken's humor has been bawdy and crude -- not the tight-lipped chuckles that Minnesotans tend to favor, says University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs.
Mr. Franken is known for "the kind of trash talk and potty mouth that people find offensive," he adds. "I can imagine a whole line of attack ads," Mr. Jacobs says, and "all of a sudden, the challenger is on the defensive."
Mr. Franken has a ready response. "People should give Minnesotans credit for knowing what a joke is and what it isn't," he says before launching into examples of what a joke isn't, including the Iraq war, veterans' care and congressional earmarks.
Lorne Michaels, the producer of "Saturday Night Live," adds that Mr. Franken's humor isn't out of step with a generation that grew up watching the show and its irreverent take on authority. "Nothing in his résumé seems that unusual if you're in the baby boom," he says.
Still, the Republican party isn't wasting time. Minutes after Mr. Franken declared his candidacy in February, the party released four pages of what it called Mr. Franken's "mean-spirited and divisive partisan" remarks. Among them: Mr. Franken's statement, in a New Statesman magazine interview last fall, that Mr. Coleman is "one of the administration's leading b- boys."
Mr. Coleman calls the slur "out-of-control vitriol." Mr. Franken says, "It was meant as a joke. I should have used 'lap dog' and I've said I will use 'lap dog' from now on."
Among the Republicans' other examples: a proposal to raise money by raffling off former Attorney General Janet Reno as a lap dancer or blasting oldsters into space on pay-per-view TV. "It was hyperbole," Mr. Franken says now.
A Republican Party "tracker" also has been following Mr. Franken, videotaping his speeches and casual banter with voters. "Every once in a while, I don't do a joke I might have," Mr. Franken says, because of the tracker, a 21-year-old Duluth college student. Mark Drake, a Minnesota Republican spokesman, says the party is "gathering footage" on Mr. Franken.
That intense focus on his humor presents a problem for Mr. Franken, whose campaign crowds seem to expect a laugh or two. In a Franken appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman" last year, Mr. Letterman raised what he called "the potential conflict between your comedic instinct versus political instinct," as he urged Mr. Franken to tell a particularly bawdy joke.
"If you were going to ever run for the Senate, you wouldn't tell it," Mr. Franken said of the joke, which he persuaded Mr. Letterman to tell instead.
Mr. Franken says his humor was political but nonpartisan during the 15 years he wrote for "Saturday Night Live." That changed in 1995, he says, when the Republicans began to pare funding for social programs while also portraying themselves as the party of family values.
His response was to write a string of books -- starting with "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot" -- that relentlessly needled Republican Party luminaries and conservative talk-radio. He signed on as a talk-show host on the liberal Air America radio network, where he honed his outrage. He left that gig in February.
Two years ago, he began planning a run for the Senate seat that Mr. Coleman won in 2002 after the death, in a plane crash, of Mr. Franken's political idol, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone. Mr. Franken moved from New York to Minneapolis where he had grown up as the son of a printing salesman, and spent a year headlining local-level party events.
He now runs his campaign from his downtown Minneapolis house. A billboard across the street advertises conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity, who is a regular object of Mr. Franken's scorn.
Mr. Franken's chances of winning Mr. Coleman's seat are helped by the revival of the Democrats' liberal base, whose politics neatly mirror his own. He is also helped by Mr. Coleman's support for the Iraq war and for President Bush, who headlined a Coleman fund-raiser last month.
In a July poll, market researcher SurveyUSA reported that Mr. Coleman led Mr. Franken by just seven percentage points, down from 22 points five months earlier.
Mr. Coleman attributes his declining poll numbers to voter "cynicism and frustration" and defends his support for the war as doing "what I think is right." He defends his ties to the president by insisting that "those relationships benefit Minnesota," citing as an example the quick federal commitment to rebuild the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed in August.
Mr. Franken isn't in for an easy race, though. His chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Michael Ciresi, did just as well in a two-way SurveyUSA match-up with Mr. Coleman. And Mr. Coleman already is attacking Mr. Franken for his support among "Hollywood ultra-liberals," although Mr. Franken also claims to have 42,000 other donors who have given him an average $65 each.
But mostly, there's Mr. Franken's long comic career -- all of it written or recorded and much of it directed at the Republicans he will have to work with should he be elected. "If you ask Minnesotans if this is the voice they want to represent them...," Mr. Coleman says, his voice trailing off to suggest that he thinks they don't.
Indeed, in a Minnesota Public Radio survey in May, 40% of the people who said they had heard of Mr. Franken said they had an unfavorable opinion of him.
"A candidate who's pretty vanilla might be what voters are looking for," says the University of Minnesota's Mr. Jacobs. That could be especially true given Minnesotans' election of Jesse "The Body" Ventura as governor in 1998. Mr. Ventura, the former professional wrestler, became the target of jokes -- many by Mr. Franken -- until he announced he wouldn't seek re-election.
These days, on the campaign trail, Mr. Franken offers only a few corny jokes. "I've been married 31 years, many of them happy," he told a group of Democratic picnickers in Oakdale, a Minneapolis suburb, on a recent Saturday as his wife sat gamely nearby.
After a few wheezes, Mr. Franken's stump speech quickly gives way to indignation over the Iraq war and government spending on veterans, health and education. That message got a warm reception -- followed by requests for Mr. Franken's autograph and queries about other comedians of his acquaintance.
"He's Paul Wellstone returned," said Tom Olson, a retired pharmacist who attended a Chisago County party picnic later in the day. "Wellstone stood for stuff and Al Franken is like that."
Mr. Franken faces months more of these picnics, barbecues, spaghetti dinners -- what he calls "bean feeds."
"I'm having a gas," he sometimes tells picnickers during an event. But he didn't serve up the gag to the dozen picnickers at Oakdale. The campaign is "energizing," he told them: "I love it."