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Which Al Franken will show up in Washington?

/ Source: The Associated Press

Now that Al Franken is headed for the Senate, which Franken will show up in Washington?

Will it be the passionate, sometimes angry liberal who hurled playground insults at Rush Limbaugh as an author and radio host? Or will it be the cautious, serious Franken who buttoned himself down the minute he hit the campaign trail?

Bet on the latter.

Franken arrives in Washington next week to claim a seat that stood vacant for half a year while Minnesota judges deliberated over legal issues in the close race, which Franken ultimately won by 312 votes.

He received an early sendoff Wednesday at the state Capitol, where several hundred people cheered his victory.

"I am happy that we now have two senators, and Al is in the fire," said Michael Kramer, a union worker who donated to Franken's campaign and knocked on doors for him.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Franken said he would style himself after former Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Bradley, Democrats who gained fame before joining the Senate — one as first lady, the other as a pro basketball star.

"Both came to the Senate with some celebrity and some skepticism from people on the Hill," Franken said. "They both put their heads down and did the work and won over their colleagues by not running to the camera."

Funnyman or serious politician?
Franken the politician has been far different from the funnyman who made his name as a "Saturday Night Live" writer and cast member.

He talks at length about holding down health costs by making sure people have access to nutritious food, places to exercise and havens from violence. And he can go head-to-head with any policy wonk in discussing cleaner energy.

It's not that Franken was entirely dull during some 18 months of campaigning. He cracked a safe joke here and there but stuck mostly to policy in speeches. The humor mainly was confined to one-on-one interactions and was rarer still when cameras were rolling.

"I was amazed how unfunny he was on the campaign trail," said Darrell West, a vice president at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank and author of "Celebrity Politics."

"He intentionally tried to distance himself from his celebrity past," West said. "He wanted to be taken seriously, and he knew he needed to demonstrate substance in order to win."

Franken entered politics through a side door. The best-selling author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot" and several other political satires entrenched himself in policy debates as a liberal host of an "Air America" network radio show. He gained a loyal following by sharply challenging — and mocking — the administration of former President George W. Bush.

When he moved back to Minnesota in 2005, he made the rounds at small Democratic gatherings and parceled out money to local candidates through a political action committee.

But some in the party were uneasy about his chances in a run against Coleman. Franken's long career as an entertainer had produced a mountain of bawdy jokes, television skits and written screeds that were prime fodder for the opposition.

Even though Franken knew Republicans would use his material as ammunition, he said in a 2007 interview with the AP that he would not try to "be something I'm not" as a candidate.

"I have to be myself," he said then. "Humor and seriousness are not in opposition to each other."

Serious Franken dominates
Yet during the long campaign, the serious Franken dominated.

In Washington, Franken will assume the seat once held by the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, a man he admired and supported.

Newly certified Minnesota U.S. Senator Al Franken and Minnesota's other U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar held up their arms in victory during a rally at the mall of the Minnesota State Capitol in St Paul, Minn., Wednesday, July 1, 2009. Franken's win followed a decision Tuesday by the Minnesota Supreme Court declaring him the winner and a concession by former Sen. Norm Coleman. Craig Lassig / FR52664 AP

Former Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett said there was "definitely a learning curve" for Franken in the early stages.

"During the Senate race, he's become a very disciplined and strategic person," Blodgett said.

Franken, he added, listened as much as he talked when meeting voters.

"When you are having that dialogue with voters, the funny stuff of old doesn't really fit, and he got that," Blodgett said.

That's not to say Franken has abandoned humor altogether. He cracked a few jokes during the interview Wednesday, including when an AP reporter informed him his election certificate had been delivered to the Senate moments earlier.

"I thought it could get lost. I was so worried about that," Franken said. "I was saying, 'Who was the courier?'"

Almost every news story about Franken includes footage or references to "SNL" skits from the 1980s, something he's resigned to.

"That's part of my career. I'm very proud of my career as a comedian and a satirist," Franken said. "But these are very different jobs."

West, the Brookings scholar, noted that the late actor and singer Sonny Bono had a bumpy entrance to Congress when the Republican won a California seat in the 1990s. Bono's repeated attempts at humor in solemn proceedings made his struggle to be taken seriously even tougher.

Bono proved to be an asset to Republicans in a way that Franken could be helpful to Democrats: A draw on the fundraising circuit.

"Washington is a place that takes itself too seriously," West said. "It could really use humor to lighten the partisanship that overlays every policy issue right now."