Too close to call for Al Franken

Slim margin will decide former comedian's Senate race

He may be good enough and smart enough -- but does he have enough votes?

Long after most races had been decided, the bid of a former "Saturday Night Live" comedian to join the United States Senate remained uncertain Tuesday night.

Al Franken's bid to unseat Republican incumbent Norm Coleman in Minnesota was in limbo as of 12:40 am PT Wednesday, with less than 2,000 votes separating the two. With 97% of precincts reporting, Coleman held a razor-thin lead, 1,165,845 to 1,164,212, over the entertainer upstart from the Democrat-Farmer-Labor party, with third-party candidate Dean Barkley trailing both with about 421,000 votes.

Those numbers virtually assured a recount, which according to Minnesota law is triggered if the margin of victory is less than half of 1%, and so the result may not be known for days.

If Franken is able to pull out a victory, it would cap a remarkable transformation of a "Saturday Night Live" icon, famous for characters like the self-affirming Stuart Smalley, to one of the country's most prominent lawmakers.

While actors and performers from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzanegger to Sonny Bono have made the transition from entertainment to politics, no comedian has made a leap from Hollywood to Capitol Hill.

"It's a lot easier for anyone who isn't a comedian, especially a succesful one, because we can't think of these people as anything other than funny," said one Hollywood insider.

And while actors typically can avoid scrutiny from the media and their opponent, comedic personalities offer a glut of material for the opposoition to pick over.

Franken's opponent offered an example of how to do just that, pulling out a now-infamous set of jokes mentioning rape that Franken wrote for "SNL" in 1995 and turning it into a cornerstone of his campaign. (The comedian has since apologized for those jokes.)

Franken has been enmeshed in a brutal, highly expensive campaign -- the priciest of any of the 35 senate races this year -- that also saw a third-party candidate enter the race.

Still, a win would affirm not just Franken's resonance with voters but his ability to evolve from a political satirist who penned skits and books about Washington to a man who operates from within the city. Some observers noted the similarities of Franken's story to the Robin Williams vehicle "Man of the Year," though many stressed Franken's extreme fluency in political matters.

"If he's elected, a lot of people will be surprised by how knowledgable he is," said one person close to the comedian. "He knows every committee and every person who sits on them. He probably knows them better than many of the people who serve in the Senate."

If the comedian loses, he's likely to return to his hyphenate entertainment career. Among his current projects is the feature comedy "Don't Send Help," a script Franken co-wrote about a nebbishy man stranded with a slew of beautiful women that's been set up at Fox (though that project could move forward without him as well, insiders noted).

Other execs and producers have been lining up hoping to work with Franken, who has put his Hollywood career on hold the past 20 months as he ran his Senate campaign. The comedian continues to be repped by William Morris.

In a campaign that saw an intertwining of entertainment and politics, particularly on "SNL," a Franken win would provide the capper. While few other personalities have shown the facility or interest in crossing over to a side of the room they usually reserve for their comedic target practice, comedy pros acknowledged that Franken, whether he wins or loses, has already raised the ceiling for the career possibilities of political satirists.
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