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No Joke! Comedian says Senate run is serious

Even as Al Franken stretches out his big doughy hand to another potential voter inside Nina’s Coffee Cafe on a recent morning, it is easy to forget that Mr. Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” star, the satirist and author, the liberal radio host, is trying to be elected to the United States Senate.
Al Franken
U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken speaks during a picnic for Democrats in Edina, Minn., on Saturday, July 21. Even as his celebrity draws crowds and attention, Franken must convince Democratic activists in every corner of Minnesota that he's more than just a funnyman -- that he also has the substance and political skill to successfully take on incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman next year. Ann Heisenfelt / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

Even as Al Franken stretches out his big doughy hand to another potential voter inside Nina’s Coffee Cafe on a recent morning, it is easy to forget that Mr. Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” star, the satirist and author, the liberal radio host, is trying to be elected to the United States Senate.

“They should be allowing more dogs in places,” Mr. Franken deadpans to the voter, “dogs in grocery stores, dogs in hardware stores.”

Would-be senators do not usually meander into such lines of conversation. Nor do they make up silly songs incorporating the names on their list during “call time,” the endless hours spent calling prospective donors. Nor do they draw freehand sketches of the United States as a party trick at campaign meet-and-greets.

Then again, there are many moments these days when Mr. Franken sounds exactly like a candidate. He has taken up the politician’s habit of peppering tales with the names of people he has talked to on his campaign trail, like Kathy Kawalek, the nurse in Cambridge, Minn., who he says told him of elderly people growing ill because they stopped taking costly medications.

And he repeats phrases and whole paragraphs just like every other candidate using and reusing bits from a stump speech. “They were 11 when Bush became president,” he often says of young voters. “Some don’t remember that a president can be articulate. They don’t remember that the federal government worked. And the saddest thing was that they don’t remember that our country was well respected around the world.”

This is what a first-time Franken candidacy looks like: an odd balancing act between being the guy people expect to be hilarious and crassly partisan and being a candidate voters need to be convinced will be earnest and sedate enough to look right in a senate chamber.

Minnesotans have come to understand that this bid by Mr. Franken, odd or not, is anything but a joke. Since Mr. Franken, who grew up in Minnesota, announced his candidacy in February, he has traveled the state frenetically, attending hundreds of forums and luncheons and rallies and leaving even his critics conceding that he has worked awfully hard.

Most convincing are the polls, which show Mr. Franken and Mike Ciresi, a well-known lawyer who has run for office before, at the top of the field of Democrats. More importantly perhaps, polls have shown Mr. Franken (and, separately, Mr. Ciresi) as competitive challengers to Senator Norm Coleman, the first-term Republican whose seat is up next year and whom Democrats have identified as among the most vulnerable incumbents nationally.

Mr. Franken dismisses the notion that voters might be unable to take a former comedian seriously, or that seeking public office now might seem a difficult divergence from an earlier path that in 1999 included “Why Not Me?,” a satiric novel about his own mock run for the presidency.

“Minnesotans know what’s a joke and what isn’t,” Mr. Franken said in an interview in jeans, a T-shirt and sweat socks at the Minneapolis town house he bought when he moved here from New York in 2005.

“There’s not necessarily a contradiction certainly between satire and being serious,” he continued. “To me they’ve always been part and parcel of the same thing. What a satirist does is looks at a situation, finds the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, absurdities, and cuts through all the baloney and gets to the truth. That’s pretty good training, I think, for the United States Senate.”

Minnesota has made unorthodox political choices before. In 1998, voters chose Jesse Ventura, a third-party candidate and former professional wrestler, for governor, although some here suggest that the experience — Mr. Ventura left after one term — might have left them less willing to try something different again.

Mr. Franken has shown that he is so far the most formidable fund-raiser among the Democratic hopefuls. (And in the most recent quarter, at least, the $1.89 million he raised was on par with Mr. Coleman’s $1.7 million.)

Some Republicans even hope to see him win the Democratic endorsement. With Mr. Franken’s long trail of Stuart Smalley affirmations, Air America broadcasts and books with names like “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” and “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations,” he would make a tempting, target.

“The question on the minds of many Democrats now is whether a Franken candidacy is going to lead to a campaign in which the challenger’s record rather than the incumbent’s will be the subject of the campaign,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.

While polls show that Minnesotans mostly know who Mr. Franken is, his critics say many of them may not like what they know.

“To think of him as a United States senator almost boggles anyone’s imagination,” said Ron Carey, the chairman of the state’s Republican Party. “So much of what he has said is vile and offensive — you can’t even quote it. I look at his words and that’s not how Minnesotans talk, not even in private conversation. His vile bomb throwing is so non-Minnesotan; he must have left his Minnesota roots in Hollywood and New York.”

Mr. Franken, 56, who left Minnesota to go to Harvard and moved back three decades later, has worked hard to assert his Minnesota roots. He tells of his plain upbringing here, of his dad, who never finished high school. Franni, his wife of 32 years, proudly showed a visitor a spoon — a second-place award she won in a potluck contest for best Hot Dish, a classic among Minnesotans. (Hers was a concoction of turkey, wild rice and celery.)

For the moment, the people Mr. Franken needs to convince most are the politically active members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, which is this state’s arm of the Democratic Party. The D.F.L. endorsement will go not to a winner of a primary election, but to the winner of a series of party meetings that start with precinct caucuses on Feb. 5 and end with a state convention in June.

In this crowd, Mr. Franken’s deeply partisan stump speech draws cheers: He swiftly lumps Mr. Coleman beside President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Fox News and Bill O’Reilly, and pledges that he is not afraid of any of them.

One weakness for Mr. Franken may come from the far left among this small slice of Democratic activists. Some of his opponents have portrayed his position on Iraq as shifting or frightened. Initially, Mr. Franken did not oppose the war. “I believed Colin Powell,” he explains now. Since then, he has been outspoken against it, and has called for a timetable for withdrawal.

Mr. Ciresi, who says he opposed the war from the start, says he is unconcerned by Mr. Franken’s fame. Minnesotans want “people who have a demonstrated record of leadership,” he said. “I’d rather be a little less well known — and be well liked. These are serious times, and I am who I am. I’m not a comedian.”

Still, along the streets here, the benefits of national fame are all around. One blustery, bitterly cold afternoon, as Mr. Franken went door-to-door in St. Paul urging voters to support a local City Council hopeful, he was met by greetings that most first-time politicians could only dream of.

“My hero!” one man actually hollered when Mr. Franken came to his door, and the man ran to fetch his wife. At a Democratic wine and cheese event in Minneapolis, clusters of people flocked to Mr. Franken and he posed for snapshots while some of the other candidates looked on uncomfortably.

Why would a comedian, an author, a commentator want to run for the Senate in the first place? For a moment, Mr. Franken sounded exactly like a candidate.

“There’s nothing better than making people laugh unless it’s improving peoples’ lives,” he said. “As you go around Minnesota, I hear from people. I hear about their lives. And they’re anxious about the future.”