The campaign, part 1: Franken enters the Senate raceby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota's 2008 Senate race began taking shape years before Al Franken and Norm Coleman started bombarding the state with tens of millions of dollars of TV ads.
After Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a 2002 plane crash, Al Franken talked about running against newly elected Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. In the fall of 2003, Newsweek quoted Franken saying he was "intrigued" by the idea. Franken told the magazine he would no longer joke about not running, because he would be a "terrible office holder."
Months later, Franken launched a national radio network called Air America, which, he said, would be a counter to conservative right-wing talk shows.
By the fall of 2005, Franken had established a political action committee, and he began raising more than $1 million for progressive causes and candidates. Later that year, Franken and his wife, Franni, moved to Minnesota, fueling speculation that the comedian-turned-political commentator was positioning himself to run for office.
In 2006, Franken traveled throughout Minnesota, appearing at dozens of local DFL events. Franken helped local party units raise money, and began getting to know DFL activists who make decisions about endorsing candidates.
FRANKEN BECOMES A CANDIDATE
During his final radio show on Valentine's Day 2007, Franken announced plans to move from the sidelines of political commentary to a campaign of his own.
"So this is it. I've decided to move on to another challenge."
The election was still more than a year and a half away. From the outset, Franken made it clear he wasn't kidding around.
Franken was hardly surprised when, after his radio show announcement, reporters starting asking him just how serious he was about his Senate campaign.
"I think it's a fair question, and I think it's one I'm going to get asked a lot. And I think that's why I started 21 months ahead of time," Franken said at the time. "I think anybody who has read my books and has listened to the radio knows I've been in this debate for a long time, and I think when people hear me they'll know that I take this very seriously."
It quickly became clear that Franken was not only familiar with the issues, but he could debate many of them with the expertise of a policy wonk.
Despite having never run for office, Franken had plenty of experience around people -- from his work on Saturday Night Live beginning in the mid-1970s, to his radio show, speaking engagements and book tours.
As a politician, Franken came across as confident right out of the gate.
He spoke passionately about getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, building a green economy and addressing the increasing cost of health care.
"I want to go to Washington to lead on things like universal health care, an Apollo program for renewable energy, and if I get in a position to do oversight on a war, I will do it."
REPUBLICANS TAKE AIM AT FRANKEN
Republican Sen. Norm Coleman said publicly he would focus on his job, not on political opponents.
But behind the scenes, Coleman was quick to use Franken's candidacy to raise money. In correspondence with supporters, Coleman called himself the Democrats' top target in 2008. He used the words "vicious, cruel, and cynical" to describe Franken.
Although Coleman largely reserved public comment about Franken at that time, the Republican Party of Minnesota began staging news conference after news conference, and putting out a seemingly unending stream of press releases criticizing Franken.
At a news conference the day Franken announced his Senate campaign, Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey sarcastically welcomed Franken to Minnesota, bearing a gift basket. Inside the basket, among other items, was a map of Minnesota and an anger management book.
The GOP sought to define Franken as a liberal, elitist carpetbagger who only moved back to Minnesota from New York to run for Senate.
The job of attacking Franken often fell upon state Party Chairman Carey.
"I think it's going to be a very competitive race. I mean Al Franken, in my mind, is a very flawed candidate," said Carey.
Carey and other Republicans found themselves oddly positioned. They seemed convinced that Franken, with his colorful and controversial past, was a dream opponent. But they also took his challenge to Coleman very seriously.
"You've got somebody who really doesn't have a Minnesota connection here for the last 30 years -- his adult life," said Carey. "And that, I think, is going to be something Minnesotans are going to wonder -- can this guy really represent my values and understand me?
Unlike Franken, Coleman was well known in Minnesota politics. He had been a popular mayor in St. Paul, and was credited with reviving the city and returning the National Hockey League to Minnesota.
Prior to his successful 2002 Senate campaign, Coleman ran for governor in 1998 and lost to Jesse Ventura. He had planned to try another gubernatorial campaign, but the Bush White House convinced him to instead set his sights on the Senate.
So Coleman did, running against incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash just 10 days before the 2002 election. Coleman won election over the last-minute Democratic replacement candidate, former Vice President Walter Mondale.
This time around, Franken was not the only Democrat seeking the DFL party endorsement to take on Coleman.
OTHER DFLers CHALLENGE FRANKEN
About a month after Franken launched his campaign, attorney Mike Ciresi entered the race. Ciresi had unsuccessfully run for Senate several years earlier. He campaigned against Franken by saying he was more electable.
Peace and social justice advocate Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and activist Jim Cohen also sought the DFL Party backing to take on Coleman.
All of the DFLers agreed to abide by the results of the party endorsement, and not wage a primary campaign that would have stretched the inter-party conflict into September.
A few months before the June 2008 DFL state convention, a conservative blogger revealed that Franken had failed to pay workers' compensation premiums for employees of his corporation. New York State officials were fining Franken $25,000.
The Franken campaign called it a mistake, and eventually blamed Franken's accountant.
A month later, the same blogger discovered Franken owed several thousand dollars in back taxes in California.