Franken asks voters to take him seriously
EmptyOTSEGO, Minn. -- Al Franken, the former "Saturday Night Live" comic running for the Senate, will tell a joke when the material is there, like the day President Bush underwent a colonoscopy and transferred power temporarily to Dick Cheney.
Appearing at a recent Democratic event, Franken opened by apologizing for his wife's absence. "She couldn't be here today," he said. "When Vice President Cheney was president for two hours, he had her arrested."
The wisecrack drew laughs, but it was really just an ice-breaker. Voters who come to a Franken event in hopes of seeing a whole stand-up routine from the author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot" are likely to be disappointed.
Franken's goal is to convince Democratic activists that he has the substance and seriousness of purpose to take on Republican Sen. Norm Coleman next year.
To do that, Franken is going through the paces of any fledgling candidate, criss-crossing the state and schmoozing Democratic activists at as many party gatherings and parades as he can get to.
Last Saturday, Franken was on the trail by 8:30 a.m., hitting a community parade in St. Paul, an academic conference, three Democratic picnics, and an open house for his new campaign headquarters in St. Paul, all in the space of about 13 hours.
Franken is trying to reach people like Gene Persha, a retired teacher from Edina, who said he is leaning toward Mike Ciresi, Franken's chief rival for the Democratic endorsement.
"He's a comedian, and his background is only tangentially political," said Persha, who watched Franken speak at a picnic of Democratic activists in the well-to-do Minneapolis suburb of Edina. Ciresi, a lawyer who led Minnesota's successful lawsuit against Big Tobacco nearly a decade ago, "has a better background for this kind of thing," Persha said.
But for every Persha, there's a Deborah Foster. The Cottage Grove woman, who counsels underprivileged college students, chatted with Franken as he worked the Rondo Days parade crowd.
"I wanted to meet him because I loved Stuart Smalley," Foster said, referring to Franken's most memorable "Saturday Night Live" character, a pathetically needy self-help guru. "But you know, he seemed genuine and sincere and interested in me, too. And a sense of humor always helps."
Franken, who grew up in Minnesota and moved back in 2005 after living in New York for many years, can take heart that Minnesotans aren't afraid to elect offbeat celebrities, Exhibit A being former Gov. Jesse Ventura, the scowling, bullet-headed professional wrestler.
But the Republicans have tried to hold some of Franken's more barbed jokes against him, such as when he referred to Coleman as "one of the administration's leading butt-boys," or his prediction on David Letterman's show that White House aides Karl Rove and Scooter Libby would be executed.
"Most people get the joke, except for the people who are invested in not getting the joke," Franken told the group of academics. "Because to not get a joke means they would have to give up the right to their indignation."
When he worked at "Saturday Night Live," Franken said, he was often the go-to guy for political sketches.
"I was a satirist," Franken explained to Democrats at a picnic in Chaska, about 30 miles southwest of Minneapolis. "Let me tell you what a satirist does: A satirist points out hypocrisy, inconsistencies and absurdities, and reveals them. Let me tell you, Norm Coleman doesn't want to debate me."
Indeed, Franken on the campaign trail seems unafraid to show his sarcastic side.
At the parade in St. Paul, he told the Franken volunteer marchers: "If you have to go to the bathroom, use a Port-a-Potty, please!"
Later that day, at the party picnic in Otsego, a small town about 35 miles northwest of Minneapolis, the 56-year-old Franken laughed when an older Democratic-Farmer-Labor activist handed him a button that read, "DFL Senior Caucus."
"This is just the kind of youthful look I'm going for," Franken told her as he pinned it to his shirt.
On the stump, Franken rarely talks about his Democratic rivals, focusing instead on portraying Coleman as a "lapdog" for the president. He also wants to see a deadline set for a withdrawal from Iraq and is calling for universal health care and renewable-energy incentives.
Colesman campaign spokesman Cullen Sheehan rejected Franken's contention that the senator has been too closely aligned with the president.
"He's not afraid to disagree with the president when it's been in the best interest of the state," Sheehan said. The spokesman noted, for example, Coleman's votes against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Between April and June, Franken raised $1.9 million, eclipsing Ciresi's $750,000 and exceeding Coleman's haul by more than $200,000 (Coleman still holds a considerable lead when it comes to money in the bank).
For Franken to succeed, he will need to make sure that Democratic activists take him seriously enough to endorse him at their state convention next June. Franken and Ciresi said they won't run in the September primary without the party endorsement.
Franken built support with the party rank-and-file by working with Democratic candidates in 2006 -- something he recalled recently when talking to volunteers at the grand opening of his new headquarters.
"We did 50 bean feeds, and it was a gas," Franken said, as the crowd cracked up. "Thank you very much! I haven't lost it, have I?"