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

On a grim, chilly evening

in early October, Al Franken, Norm Coleman, and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley sat side-by-side-by-side at a table in Rochester. The 1,000-plus in attendance had gathered to see three senatorial candidates square off on the issues.

Nevertheless, Coleman and Franken instead chose to rehash their relentless attacks on one another.

Coleman expounded on "the difference between talk and action" no less than six times during the hour-and-a-half-long contest. In a cadence eerily similar to that of Heath Ledger's Joker, Franken mentioned President Bush at least seven times in connection with Coleman.

During the last half-hour, the moderator read aloud questions submitted by the audience. The second one forced the candidates to finally acknowledge the lingering stench that clung to the political contest:

"What is your commitment to civility in your campaign and what are you doing to ensure that the dialogue is civil with respect to your own ads and those of people on your behalf?"

Franken deftly dodged the question. "Part of an election is holding an incumbent accountable," he said, adding that his campaign has "been running ads about Norm Coleman's record, and so it's a lot of negative, because his record hasn't been very good."

For his part, Coleman embraced the very ethos the question was intended to dismantle. "Mr. Franken's record is his career," he said. "And you gotta decide: Is temperament important? Yeah, it's pretty important! There are some tough ads. But they go to his record just as his ads, he says, challenge my record."

For more than a year, Minnesotans have been treated to a caricature of everything trite and distracting in American politics. During a time of horrifying backsliding on multiple American fronts—economically, socially, militarily, constitutionally—the race for the U.S. Senate has been marked by round-the-clock attack ads, weird back-and-forth accusations, swipes at the candidates' wives, and insincere moral grandstanding.

The smears haven't come cheap. The Coleman and Franken campaigns have spent a combined $28 million, making it by far the most expensive Senate race in the country this year. Of that, a staggering $19 million has been put toward 10,000 television ads, almost all of then negative.

"It's the ugliest race in the state of Minnesota I've ever seen in terms of the level and frequency of attacks," says Paula O'Loughlin, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota-Morris. "The campaigns know that they're turning people off, but the goal is to lower the other guy's turnout more than it lowers your own. It's like chemotherapy: In order to kill the cancer, they poison you."

The first salvo

There's a reason the mudslinging between Coleman and Franken feels like it's been raging since time immemorial.

"The length of time that we've seen negative ads is somewhat unprecedented," says public relations expert and political observer Blois Olson. "So I think fatigue has been a factor on voters as a result of the ads."

The campaign began in the summer of 2007. With public support of Bush's handling of the Iraq war languishing at a paltry 30-ish percent, Franken took out a full-page ad in the Star-Tribune lambasting Coleman for supporting the Mesopotamian misadventure: "Senator Norm Coleman stood with President Bush and voted against bringing our troops home. Again," read the text above a photo of Coleman and Bush locking arms.

Coleman hit back with an ad trashing Franken for refusing to condemn MoveOn.org's "General Betray Us" ad, a school-yard jibe against General David Petraeus.

When it was discovered that the Strib had charged Coleman $32,000 for the ad—a full $12,000 less than had Franken paid—the daily wrote Franken a check to cover the difference.

The battle was on.

Me so ornery

Having never held political office, Franken leaves behind no voting record to scrutinize, nor policies to critique. Which would be a tremendous advantage if Franken had made his living as anything other than a comedian.

On March 14, the conservative blog Minnesota Democrats Exposed posted a YouTube clip of a Franken reading from his book Rush Limbaugh Is Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. In one scene, Newt Gingrich enters a Saigon bar and converses with a Vietnamese prostitute, who spits in his face.

When Franken read the prostitute's dialogue aloud, he dropped his R's and adopted a Vietnamese accent and inflection.

Which caused the blog to arrive at the conclusion that Al Franken hates Asian people.

In a normal campaign, grasping-for-straws blog-wash like this is usually ignored. But Coleman opted to pounce on the fabricated controversy.

"Al Franken may have serious disagreements with people like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh," Coleman scolded in a statement. "But I fail to see how he needs to play into stereotypes of cultures in order to attack those he opposes."

Ticky-tax foul

For a traveling author and comic, it can be a challenge to keep track of all the states to which you must pay taxes.

After it came out in April that Franken owed some $50,000 in back taxes to 17 states, Coleman tried to tar him as a tax cheat. One of the more memorable attack ads starred an eight-year-old girl who, for some reason, was outraged by Franken's blunder.

"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

Coleman's wife, Laurie, has long been the subject of intrigue and speculation. One of The Hill's "50 Most Beautiful on Capitol Hill" and an aspiring actress, there has long been whispered innuendo that she was more interested in Hollywood stardom than life with boring old Norm.

Which brings us to the infamous Green-Screened Wife conspiracy theory.

In mid-June, the Coleman campaign unveiled an ad, set in the Colemans' kitchen, starring Laurie. Gripping a coffee mug and addressing the camera, she defends her hubby against allegations that he's been a rubber stamp for the president. Meanwhile, Norm lurks in the background with a cup of joe, casually flipping through the morning paper, perhaps noticing his plummeting poll numbers.

Almost immediately after the ad's debut, however, online observers began suggesting that Laurie had actually been filmed at a separate location (probably L.A., went the theory) and digitally added in.

"The lighting is wrong!" went the online chatter. "The angle of the counter is out of whack! She's out of proportion! Obviously a hoax!"

Two days later, Coleman released outtakes proving that, yes, Laurie was in fact in the kitchen with him during the filming.

"On it's face it's so outrageous," says right-wing blogger Michael Brodkorb of Minnesota Democrats Exposed. "Even after Coleman released the footage, some of them didn't even offer a correction."

Dueling bowlers

"Norm Coleman brought hockey back."

So we're told by a polyester-clad bowler in a Coleman ad released July 11.

Days later, Franken offered a bowling-themed ad of his own. Only this Joe Bowler wasn't a fan of Coleman.

"He voted to give billions of tax breaks to oil companies!" the alley cat says of Coleman. "Now they're raking in record profits and we're paying four bucks a gallon for gas!"

The triple turkey of the bowling ads came from the Coleman campaign. This time Joe Bowler brought along his buddies! The guys bitch about "tasteless, sexist jokes" and "that juicy porn" put out by Franken.

Because we all know there's nothing potbellied, beer-guzzling bowlers hate more than crude jokes and pornography.

Photo shop

Just days before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota Democrats issued a weird bounty: $532.88—the amount Coleman paid his D.C. landlord for a year's worth of utilities—to anybody who managed to snap a photograph of Norm Coleman next to Dubya at the Xcel Energy Center.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Gustav proved the more fetching photo op for our sitting president, so would-be paparazzi missed their shot at the loot.

The project's intent was to visually reinforce what Franken had been hammering on the previous year: that Coleman was a Bush yes man. Franken and his surrogates love to point out the fact that Coleman has voted with Bush 86 percent of the time.

But longtime Minnesota political observer Barry Casselman says the stat is misleading.

"Most of those votes are procedural things," Casselman points out. "You could apply the same test to many Democrats and the results would come out saying they side with Bush the majority of the time."

Something's fishy

Franken's may be the first political campaign in U.S. history to employ a talking, mounted fish as a spokesman.

"Over 10,000 lakes in Minnesota, but where does Norm Coleman go fishing?" the fish asked in its August debut. "Alaska! Indicted Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens flew him up! And got big oil honchos to give thousands just to fish with Norm! Now one of the oil guys Norm went fishing with has been convicted of bribery!"

While the ad was swimming in innuendo, there wasn't much in the way of hard evidence to sink the hook.

"The questions we should ask ourselves are, how serious is this and how well do we know this to be case?" says Steve Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. "I think there's been some exaggeration of the gravity of Coleman's transgressions on the part of Franken's side."

In case you're wondering, the fish appears to be a smallmouth bass.

You wouldn't like him when he's angry

On September 12, the Coleman campaign blindsided Minnesota TV viewers with their "Angry Al" ad. We're shown footage of Franken at a Howard Dean fundraiser, looking as if he's about to morph into the Incredible Hulk.

"These people are so [expletive deleted] shameless!" Franken bellows to the crowd, presumably in reference to Republicans.

As if that weren't enough, Coleman released another ad days later featuring a scowling, maniacally gesturing Franken and the message: "His profanity-laced anger, followed by violent outbursts. He physically assaulted a protester."

But a few weeks after the ads' debut, it was revealed that the most memorable image—a rabid Franken addressing the crowd with Hitleresque fervor—had been taken woefully out of context. Franken wasn't angry; he was doing an affectionate impression of the late Paul Wellstone trotting alongside his son, David, at cross-country meets.

"'You can take this guy!'" Franken had shouted before the chuckling crowd, mimicking Wellstone's excited flailing. "'You can take this guy!'"

As for the ad's claim that Franken had "attacked a protester": At a January 2004 rally for Howard Dean in Manchester, New Hampshire, a crazed heckler leaped onto the stage, at which point Franken and two security guards grabbed his shoulders and restrained him.

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

Iraqsploitation

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.

"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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