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

"[Franken] was given a key to the city as a result," says Franken spokeswoman Colleen Murray. "The theater manager called him a hero."


On September 16, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released an ad that comes close to accusing Coleman of murder, or at least manslaughter.

The ad centers on Nancy and Claremont Anderson of Hoffman, Minnesota, whose son, Stuart, died in January 2006 when his helicopter was shot down over Iraq.

Dan Picasso
Darin Back

"If Norm Coleman would have stood up to the president and said, 'This is not a good idea,' maybe he would have listened," Nancy says in the ad.

"We're proud of Stuart, but he's still gone," says Claremont at the ad's conclusion. "Norm's gotta go, he's gotta go."

The minute-long piece packs an emotional wallop, but there's something vaguely unsettling about the idea of a video editor nestled in a soundproof studio, cutting up the footage to juxtapose Stuart Anderson's death with a call to oust Coleman, especially considering Franken himself initially supported the invasion.

"It sort of toed the line of credibility, only because they left them on camera too long," says Duffy of The Cook Political Report. "By the end, I had enough time to think, 'Wait a minute, are they blaming Norm Coleman for their son's death?' Which is very, very sad. I actually played it for a couple of media consultants and asked, 'Am I wrong here?' They said no; you shouldn't ever let it get to the point when you consciously ask yourself that kind of question."

Communion waiver

At a September 24 Coleman event, three Catholics showed up and asserted that they had been offended by Franken's past jokes. They were armed with a two-page dossier titled, "The Facts About Al Franken's Catholic Bashing."

The report claimed Franken's past barbs on communion and Mary Magdalene proved him to be a bigot who clearly thought the pope was an agent of the antichrist. Two weeks later, college Republicans at St. Thomas University asked President Dennis Dease to rescind Franken's invitation to campus.

The Franken campaign, in turn, released a statement repeating his now familiar refrain: "I'm not proud of every joke I've done."

But there's even more compelling evidence that Franken doesn't really hate Catholics: He married one.

Message in a bottle

On October 2, the Franken campaign trotted out its own wife-themed, non-green screened ad. Franni Franken, front-and-center, reminisces about how she and Al met at a dance their freshman year in college.

From there, things take a turn for the weird. She launches into an unsolicited confessional about her struggles with alcoholism and how Al stayed with her.

It's unclear why Franni's past battles with the bottle warrant mention—are we to understand that Al won't resign his seat even if the state turns into a lush?—but it might have been an attempt to neutralize the porn and rape jokes that Coleman smeared him with.

"He's tried to crawl into the good graces of women," says Larry Jacobs, professor of political science at the U of M. "He has to do well with women in Minnesota, and that's been a demographic he'd been struggling with."

Nothing but a cheap suit

Earlier this month, the Coleman campaign found itself grappling with an October surprise involving, of all things, suits.

On October 6, Harper's ran a blog post in which two unnamed sources alleged that local businessman Nasser Kazeminy had, on numerous occasions, footed the bill for Coleman's lavish clothing purchases at Neiman Marcus—gifts that Coleman had neglected to report per Senate rules.

The story exploded on the blogosphere and the campaign was forced to acknowledge the allegations. In what the Washington Post later dubbed "the most awkward press conference in the history of politics," Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan robotically repeated the party line.

"The senator has reported every gift he's ever received."

"That wasn't the question."

"The senator has reported every gift he's ever received."

"So Senator Coleman's friend has not bought these suits for him, is that correct?"

"The senator has reported every gift he's ever received."

And so on and so forth. Coleman would later explain that he had refused to respond "to a baseless, unsubstantiated claim that appears on a blog" because he didn't want to "make a story out of a non-story."

Mission accomplished.

FOUR DAYS AFTER the Harper's story broke, Norm Coleman held a press conference in his St. Paul headquarters to make a surprise announcement.

"I have directed my campaign this morning to begin the process of immediately pulling any negative ad that I am personally responsible for approving," he told reporters.

Coleman added that he would encourage PACs to follow his lead, but noted that he couldn't "legally" compel them to do so.

The decision was met with suspicion by the Franken campaign, which dismissed the move as "a cynical ploy designed to change the subject and avoid scrutiny of his own record."

It remains to be seen whether Coleman will honor his promise, and if Franken will follow his lead. But with the recent gains made by Barkley, and the historical example of Jesse Ventura, who beat Coleman in the 1998 gubernatorial race, both candidates might be wise to refocus their energies.

"We have an electorate that's really worried about their future and the economy," says Duffy. "Maybe suits and jokes aren't what we should be talking about."

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