Minnesota race hinges on quips, flips

Franken, Ventura, Coleman vie for Senate seat

Something happened to Al Franken in his race for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota: Things stopped being funny.

It’s gotten so serious, in fact, that there are doubts as to how big a challenge he now poses to incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who once seemed a slam-dunk for defeat due to his links to the highly unpopular George W. Bush.

As many suspected when Franken got in the race last year, the campaign has become about Franken’s humor, not the vulnerable Coleman, and Franken now trails by anywhere from three to 10 percentage points. The satirist and former Air America host has had to apologize for an article he wrote for Playboy called “Porn-o-rama,” and even bad jokes that never made it to the air on “Saturday Night Live.”

But the more daunting threat now comes not from Franken’s past but from another celeb politico: former Gov. Jesse Ventura, who told Variety last week that he’s mulling a bid for Coleman’s seat.

His entry could siphon votes of disaffected Minnesotans and change the election’s dynamics, given the lower threshold to win in a race with three major candidates.

Ventura is encouraged by polls that show him drawing as much of a quarter of the vote. “When I ran for governor (in 1998), the weekend before the election, I was only polling 27. So I am only three points off what I was when I won,” says Ventura. “And we haven’t even had a debate yet.”

Some Minnesotans may be wary of putting the former wrestler back on the political stage, and his outspokenness makes his Election Day appeal hard to predict, but that’s beside the point.

“If Jesse Ventura jumps in the race, I think Al Franken’s already challenged candidacy is on ice,” says Lawrence Jacobs, political science professor at the U of Minnesota. “Maybe the ice thaws, but Franken’s prospects depend on voters who are angry or disaffected by the incumbent and are choosing to vote for him. If Ventura jumps in the race, he is going to drain away some of the anti-incumbent vote that Franken would get.”

As a native of the state, I see the merit in what Franken is trying to do, running not as a comedian or satirist but pursuing the almost nostalgic mantle of a bygone era of state politics, when senators routinely rose to national prominence with unabashed liberalism.

By many accounts, Franken has done just that, forming a grassroots operation and fanning out across the state with an eye for the ebullience of Hubert Humphrey and the wonkishness of Walter Mondale. And people I have spoken with who have met Franken say they like him — even as the GOP tries to cast him as a smarmy, know-it-all liberal elitist.

The problem is that Franken can’t meet everyone in the state, so what people are left with are their prior impressions from “Saturday Night Live” or that Stuart Smalley pic or his biting radio stint.

Though Franken has exceeded expectations, Jacobs says, he misjudged the level to which his satire would be used against him. While he courted political clubs and stumped in small diners and tirelessly worked the phones to amass a sizable war chest (including a big chunk of Hollywood money), the GOP was ready to pounce with their opposition research.

Meanwhile, Ventura, fresh off of a book tour for his latest tome “Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me!” is lying in wait. He has until July 15 to decide whether to run, but he speaks with the expertise of someone who has been through it all before.

“(Franken) has taken a great deal of grief over (his humor), which I disagree with,” Ventura says. “That was his private-sector job. I think it has no bearing on him running for office. … That is that part that Al Franken has to face that he didn’t realize I already faced.”

Ventura still bristles that in his 1998 bid, the media pegged him as a “former pro wrestler,” not “former mayor,” as in Brooklyn Park, Minn., where he had been hizzoner for some time.

Unlike Franken, however, Ventura was free from having to please party regulars, and he could stand out in debates. He went on to knock out Democratic Attorney General Skip Humphrey, scion of the state’s most revered political figure, and, yes, Coleman, then the Republican mayor of St. Paul.

And he’s prepared to do it again.

Ventura would raise money on the Internet, and his campaign manager in 1998, Dean Barkley, says he may come aboard as an adviser. “I have had several calls from lifelong Democrats who have offered to help,” Barkley says.

Ventura’s campaign would tag Franken as a “carpetbagger” and Coleman a “chickenhawk.” With a gubernatorial record that includes a light rail system and property tax reform, Ventura’s platform would be a Ross Perot-style hit on the huge deficit, a commitment to campaign finance reform and even a pledge to allow “None of the above” as an option on ballots, along with a call to end the war. He says he would be “the biggest pain in the ass they have ever had on the Senate floor.”

Ventura asks, multiple times in our hourlong conversation, “See how dangerous I am if I get into a debate with them?”

Some of it sounds funny, but it’s actually ironic. As Franken tempers his penchant for entertaining, Ventura need not worry about holding back. He’s a seasoned celebrity pol, and a little bit of laughter is just what people have come to expect from him.

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