Al Franken vs. Norm Coleman gets down and dirty

The senate race between the Republican incumbent and the former SNL comedian is the most expensive in the country

"Do you know what his excuse was?" she asks after casting her teddy bear aside. "He said no one told him to do it! That excuse doesn't even work in the third grade!"

Meanwhile, Franken attributed the error to his silly accountant, who, in turn, hid under his desk and refused to speak to reporters.

"I think the Coleman campaign was effective when they pointed out the financial problems of Franken," says political analyst Barry Casselman. "These were not false allegations. He screwed up how he paid his state income taxes."

To be fair, Franken paid the taxes back in full (plus another 20 grand in interest and penalties). And it appears to be more an error in allocation than willful withholding—turns out, Franken had overpaid in both New York and Minnesota.

"When I first heard it, I thought, 'This is terrible,'" recalls Wy Spano, co-editor of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter. "Then I thought, 'Wait a minute. Al paid $50,000 too much in taxes and that's a problem?' It goes beyond the pale to keep suggesting it was tax evasion when, in fact, it was tax stupidity."

Robot love

In late May, the Minnesota GOP dug up and reintroduced to the public an obscure, eight-year-old article that few people had read and even fewer remembered.

In a 2000 issue of Playboy, Franken penned a satirical piece in which he visits a futuristic sex institute and participates in carnal acts with machines. With a title like "Porn-o-Rama!" it was too risqué for conservatives not to use.

Republicans sent Franken a letter, signed by six GOP women, demanding an apology (they also posted it on Coleman's campaign website). The letter reads less like traditional conservative rhetoric and more like something from the margins of Ms.

"This column is, at its worst, an extreme example of the kind of disrespect for the role of women in society that all of us have fought our entire lives," it reads. "At best, it is the disrespectful writings of a nearly 50-year-old man who seems to think that women's bodies are the domain of a man who just wants to have a good time."

No one found it funny, least of all DFLers, who suddenly wondered whether they wanted to be associated with a candidate who once wrote so glibly of fucking machines. DFL Rep. Betty McCollum called the article "indefensible," which Coleman subsequently used against Franken.

"I wasn't surprised that those statements I had made were used by Coleman," McCollum says. "But they were used totally out of context. I've since endorsed Al."

Raping Lesley Stahl

Little more than two weeks later, Republicans attempted to build on the smut smear by circulating so-called "rape jokes" that Franken had penned 13 years earlier while working as a staff writer on Saturday Night Live.

A 1995 New York piece about SNL described a scene in which Franken, Norm MacDonald, and writer Jim Downey kicked around ideas for a spoof of 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney. In the skit, a bottle of sleeping pills is discovered in Rooney's desk drawer. In hashing out the script, Franken offers a few off-color suggestions for Rooney's dialogue, which were dutifully reported in the magazine.

"And 'I give the pills to Lesley Stahl. Then, when Lesley's passed out, I take her to the closet and rape her,'" Franken is quoted as saying in the article. "Or, 'That's why you never see Lesley until February.' Or, 'When she passes out, I put her in various positions and take pictures of her.'"

The circulated quotes elicited perfunctory outrage from Republicans. Coleman swooped in to avenge all the people supposedly hurt by Franken's joke, even though the skit in question never actually aired.

"Al Franken is not living in the real world if he thinks the hurt he has caused real people throughout his career with jokes about rape and pornography isn't cause for real concern among real Minnesotans," Coleman said.

However trumped-up the charges, it couldn't have played well with our notoriously sex-shy citizens.

"I don't know how well some of the off-color humor goes in Minnesota, which is somewhat socially conservative," say Albert Eisele, founding editor of D.C.-based newspaper The Hill. "Overall, I think it's been unhelpful."

Room with a view

On June 10, National Journal published an incisive article detailing Coleman's cozy ties with hyper-connected GOP operative/telemarketing entrepreneur Jeff Larson. In particular, the magazine made note of the suspiciously inexpensive $600-a-month D.C. apartment that Larson rented to Coleman.

Seizing the opportunity, Franken released a television ad busting Coleman for his cheap living quarters. The commercial featured a photo of a swank living room with a red oriental rug adorning a sparkling wood floor.

There was just one problem: The room was actually upstairs from the senator's dwelling. Coleman actually inhabited a far less opulent apartment in the basement.

"Voters don't really appreciate how expensive it is to serve in the U.S. Senate," says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of D.C.-based The Cook Political Report. "I've been in a lot of those Capitol Hill townhouses. Did you see his room in the video? If anything, I'm thinking $600 is too much."

Kitchen table issues

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