Will it be Franken or Nelson-Pallmeyer?by Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota DFL party begins its convention in Rochester Friday. The main order of business comes Saturday, when delegates will be asked to endorse a candidate to run against Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.
St. Paul, Minn. — Al Franken has been campaigning for Senate for 15 months.
Just days before the state convention Franken was on his way into an upscale home in Shakopee. It's a beautiful summer-like afternoon, the kind of day most people dress down. But Franken is wearing his trademark blue suit, pressed white shirt and tie.
He looks more like a banker than a famous comedian.
Franken displays the sensibility of a careful politician when a supporter approaches him with what looks like a margarita.
"Do you have a designated driver?" he asked.
Inside the home DFLers flocked to Franken.
Kathie Woods of Mendota Heights talked with him about electric car technologies. Like everyone else at the gathering, Woods is aware of the news reports of Franken's tax problems. But, like everyone else there, she's not concerned them.
"And this new flap about the article in Playboy," she says. "It was before he was running for Senate. It was in Playboy. It was a long time ago. It doesn't really affect the campaign or what he's doing now at all to me."
After milling about and talking with people one-on-one, Franken gives an informal speech heavy on criticism of Sen. Norm Coleman.
His audience is delighted.
"We are going to beat Norm Coleman," he says. "Because he has not done his job. Five and a half years ago he was given a huge responsibility to work for the working families of Minnesota and he blew it. He sold out to George Bush and Karl Rove and their corporate cronies."
Outside, away from the supporters in an interview, Franken says all of the talk about his tax problems and that Playboy article is nothing more than a sideshow which Republicans hope will distract from the real issues of the campaign.
"You know they've been throwing this stuff at me since the day we started," he says. "I don't think people have cared about it. I started, I think, 22 points down. And the last poll we have, it was a dead heat. I really think that the focus that the voters are going to have is on their lives."
But at least for the past couple of months, Franken has been unsuccessful at keeping the issues at the forefront and instead has been forced to play defense.
Franken says he can change that.
"We're raising a lot money. We have over 100,000 donors in this race so far so we're going to have enough money to put on TV our message," he says. "And our message will be that I'm going to fight for Minnesota working families."
Franken is not exaggerating the fortunes of his campaign. Federal Election Commission records show that through March of this year, Franken raised more than $9.2 million and had almost $3.5 million in available cash.
To continue with his campaign Franken must first secure the DFL endorsement. Both Franken and the other candidate for the endorsement, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, have said they will drop out of the race if the other wins.
Nelson-Pallmeyer joined the Senate campaign last October, several months after Franken launched his bid.
He's on leave from his justice and peace studies teaching position at the University of St. Thomas. Two years ago Nelson-Pallmeyer ran an unsuccessful congressional campaign in the 5th District.
Franken has out raised Nelson-Pallmeyer 17-1, but Nelson-Pallmeyer has been aggressively campaigning all over Minnesota. And he insists he's a viable contender to win the endorsement.
"I was thinking today I probably have driven 30,000 miles around the state since I got involved in this, and done hundreds and hundreds of meetings," he says. "But they're fun."
Today's meeting is an early morning gathering of the Minnetonka Rotary Club.
Nelson-Pallmeyer is a tall, mild-mannered man with a big frame and a full head of silver hair. With his tie, pressed shirt and blue blazer he easily blends into group.
At the podium Nelson-Pallmeyer explains his belief that the human race is at a turning point
"What I've been saying to Minnesotans on the campaign trail is this: Welcome to the most important decade in human history," he says. "We didn't choose that, but now our choices really matter."
Nelson-Pallmeyer goes on to ask the Rotarians if any of them have children or know children and then, rhetorically, how many don't care about children?
"And my point being, then let's start acting like it," he says. "Let's start pursuing the public policies that we need to make sure that our children, all children and our grandchildren have a decent future."
Like Franken, Nelson-Pallmeyer frequently accuses Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of rubber- stamping President Bush's agenda. He does not criticize Franken. But his staff is happy to provide names and numbers of delegates who have abandoned Franken in favor Nelson-Pallmeyer.
"My name is Paulette Kowalewski," says one. "I was an Al Franken supporter, and I still think Al is a great guy. I switched to Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer because he spoke to my heart."
Kowalewski is DFL delegate from south Minneapolis.
"Paul Wellstone had the same kind of background that Jack has, in that he was not a political person, but all of his leanings were absolutely the DFL platform in the most ideal situation," she says. "And I think that's what Jack is."
On the issues, Nelson-Pallmeyer and Franken share many positions. Both would roll back tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. Both also call for a pathway for illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.
Each also talks a lot about transitioning to a a green economy to reduce pollution and dependence on oil while creating jobs.
Both are also calling for universal health care. Franken says each of the states should come up with its own system.
Nelson-Pallmeyer is promoting national single- payer coverage, essentially expanding Medicare to cover everyone.
"I will sponsor this," he says. "I will work hard to make it happen. And then I will tell you if we can't make it happen, well, then you try to support the state efforts, but you don't give up the goal before you work towards it. And I think the time is to work towards it."
Franken says he'd vote for single-payer if it came up.
On Iraq Nelson-Pallmeyer has been calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops and contractors. Franken has been talking about establishing a timeline for getting out.
From the beginning Nelson-Pallmeyer has been an outspoken opponent of the war. Franken has found himself repeatedly explaining just how be felt about the invasion early on.
"During the lead up to the war I was torn," he says. "I didn't express support for the war. I also didn't get out in the streets and protest the war. I regret that. But as soon as it became apparent that we were misled in the war, I spoke out."
Convention delegates have a choice between a well-known and well-financed candidate with a load of baggage from his career as a comedian and a relatively unknown candidate who has not demonstrated an ability to raise the kind of money most agree is needed for a Senate campaign.
When the convention is over they hope their choice will position them to defeat Norm Coleman.
- Morning Edition, 06/06/2008, 7:20 a.m.