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With Ciresi's exit, political insiders expect negative Senate race between Franken and Coleman

Al Franken
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
With Monday's departure of attorney Mike Ciresi, Al Franken (shown here at a January political event) took a major step toward likely DFL endorsement to face Sen. Norm Coleman this fall.

Al Franken can't go more than a few sentences without invoking Sen. Norm Coleman's name.

"The focus of this campaign always has been Norm Coleman,'' he said as he headed to the airport Tuesday morning on another of his fundraising forays outside of Minnesota.


Franken came a step closer Monday to winning the DFL endorsement to face Coleman this fall when attorney Mike Ciresi announced he was pulling out of the race.

These days, however, he is a little sensitive about heading out of the state for money.

"Norm Coleman tried to say that I didn't have support from inside Minnesota,'' Franken said. "I'm proud to say I have 15,000 donors inside the state. It turned out that I have more supporters in the state than Norm Coleman does.''

Norm Coleman. Over and over again, he says the name.

Republicans preparing hard to take on Franken
But then, it should be noted that the Republican Party has been homing in on Franken for months, as well. And now with Ciresi gone and only University of St. Thomas professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer standing between Franken and endorsement, the Republican attacks on Franken will only increase.

"We are going to show the clear differences between Al Franken, and his angry rhetoric and divisive partisanship, and Norm Coleman, who spent nearly 30 years living, working and raising a family in Minnesota,'' said Mark Drake, the Republican Party's communications director in an email. "Minnesotans will know the difference between someone who made the decision to move here and make a difference – and someone who moved here to run for public office. Al Franken has piled up nearly 30 years of material that attacks religion, women, minorities and the most vulnerable in society.''

In other words, Republicans have assumed all along that Franken would win DFL endorsement. They've studied every word the comic/satirist has ever written or said. And by November, they intend to make sure that every Minnesotan has heard the most controversial of those words.

Assuming he wins endorsement and ends up as the DFL's nominee, how will Franken counter the Republican attacks on his words?

Franken's plan of response: 'Jujitsu'
"Jujitsu,'' said Franken. 

Say again?

"Jujitsu,'' he said. "You turn your opponent's attack against him. I'll point out that Coleman's running a challenger's race. He's not running based on his record; he's running against me. That's what happens when you claim you're a 90 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone, and then have to try to explain that you meant you're a 90 percent improvement over Wellstone because of your support of the president. I guess that's what you have to do when you've attached yourself to the president's hip. I guess the only thing left to do is attack your opponent.''

So that's what a Coleman-Franken race will look like: tons of money being spent, with Coleman talking about Franken's words and Franken talking about Coleman's actions.

But first, for Franken, there is the matter of Nelson-Pallmeyer, who has lasted longer than Ciresi, despite having little money and even less name recognition.

"We're leading a cause,'' said Nelson-Pallmeyer of his staying power.

Sen. Norm Coleman
Sen. Norm Coleman

But surely Nelson-Pallmeyer could not have been pleased to learn Monday that Ciresi was calling it quits. He needed Ciresi to help slow down Franken's impressive march to quick endorsement at the DFL convention, which will be held in Rochester June 6-8.

Go back a few decades when Nelson-Pallmeyer was a junior in high school in Coon Rapids and playing quarterback for the football team. The football dreams of the scrawny kid ended when he was caught in the open field and a tackler "tore my left leg out of my hip socket.''

Baseball became the kid's sport.

Ciresi's withdrawal cost Nelson-Pallmeyer his 'blocking back'

The point here is that with Ciresi gone, Nelson-Pallmeyer has lost his blocking back. He's left in the open field facing Franken all alone. Will his political aspirations be torn apart?

Actually, for months Nelson-Pallmeyer supporters have been concerned about how poorly Ciresi was doing across the state. Their feeling was that they needed Ciresi to stop Franken from sweeping to a quick endorsement at the state convention. With each ballot, their hope was that Nelson-Pallmeyer's strength would grow.

After all, the St. Thomas prof does say the sorts of things that DFL activists want to hear: 

He ALWAYS opposed the war. He believes that global warming is the most important issue in our history. He believes that the country's great issues – the economy, health care, education – can't be tackled without getting out of the war and without making massive cuts in defense spending.

"People want to vote for Jack, but they're afraid he doesn't have a chance of getting the endorsement," said Larry Weiss, a former adviser who recently joined the staff of 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison. "In the end, though, he can be the candidate people rally around.''

Nelson-Pallmeyer's task is preventing quick victory for Franken

But will there be time for a rally at the convention?  Nelson-Pallmeyer needs a combination of his supporters and uncommitted delegates to come up with 41 per cent of the 1,388 delegates or Franken will sweep to a very quick victory.

So Ciresi isn't alone today in wondering why he did so poorly. Nelson-Pallmeyer supporters are asking that question, too.

Despite putting more than $2 million of his own money into his campaign, despite getting a long list of DFL pols to support him – Rep. Betty McCollum and former DFL Senate leader Roger Moe headed an impressive list of people in the party hierarchy who supported Ciresi – there was no Ciresi buzz. Anywhere.

One small example: Dan Skogen, a DFL state senator from Hewitt, started the campaign supporting Franken. Recently, he switched to Nelson-Pallmeyer.

"We connected,'' he said of his switch.

What of Ciresi?

"In the last few months, we have seen a lot of Franken, quite a bit of Jack, but nothing of Ciresi,'' Skogen said.

That same message could be heard around the state: Where's Ciresi?

Political insiders searched in vain for Ciresi 

That lack of presence showed up at district conventions, where delegates to the state convention are in the process of being selected.  According to unofficial counts, in Senate District 50 in Columbia Heights last weekend, Franken received the support of a dozen delegates, Nelson-Pallmeyer, two,  and Ciresi, one. In Senate District 66 in St. Paul, Franken picked up seven delegates, with four for Nelson-Pallmeyer and two for Ciresi. In Senate District 62 in Minneapolis, the unofficial tally showed Franken picking up 13 delegates, Nelson-Pallmeyer getting 10 and Ciresi one.

The endorsement process was clearly frustrating Ciresi. He kept looking at state polls that showed him running nearly even with Franken in a race against Coleman, yet he was drawing no support from the party activists.

The Star Tribune reported that in an interview following the Senate District 35 convention in Savage, Ciresi called the endorsement process "not really democratic.'' The activists, he said, aren't looking at who will have the broadest support come November. Yet, he so often had vowed that he would abide by the endorsement process that there was no way he could circumvent the convention and go straight to a primary.

Ciresi backers blame 'Obama factor' of seeking someone 'new'
Judi Dutcher, the former state auditor and former lieutenant governor candidate who early on endorsed Ciresi, believes he got caught up in a voter wave, exemplified by Barack Obama.

"A lot of us were quick to support him,'' Dutcher said. "He was someone we were familiar with. He'd run a good race (in losing to Mark Dayton in the DFL primary in 2000). He was good on the issues. I still think he would have been a very good senator. But people are saying, 'We don't want anything familiar. We want something new.' You're seeing that with Obama, and it's carrying over.''

Additionally, Ciresi may have underestimated how hard Franken had worked in the last two years in support of DFL candidates all across Minnesota. He's eaten a lot of beans with DFLers and raised a lot of money for them. They're now showing their appreciation by supporting him.

So now, it's Nelson-Pallmeyer taking on Franken by himself.

"I know there are two ways of looking at this,'' he said in a conversation Monday night. "The way I'm looking at it is that we're doing pretty well and now, with just two of us in the race, people can make a clear choice.''

Laughing, he noted how the big newspapers in the state might actually have to start mentioning him before the next-to-the-last paragraphs in the few Senate campaign stories that have been written.

He said he also will push for Franken to hold debates with him in each of Minnesota's eight Congressional districts bfore the state convention.

"With just two of us, there should be no excuse not to have debates,'' said Nelson-Pallmeyer, who is a well-spoken debater. "There should be no scheduling problems. We can just talk about the issues and let delegates compare and decide.''

But the long odds for Nelson-Pallmeyer got longer with Ciresi's abrupt adios.

"We're taking nothing for granted,'' said Franken. "We're going to keep doing the things we've been doing.''

Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (6)

If all those who say they hesitate to vote for Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer because he is not as well known or is considered by the right to be too far to the left, consider also that he has not created enemies anywhere or anytime in his past. He treats all persons with respect and, as senator, would, without ever pandering, give that same respect to those with whom he disagrees. He is articulate, truly green, knowledgeable in both domestic and foreign affairs, served as one of Paul Wellstone's foreign policy advisors, has worked in Latin America where he observed the results of US foreign policy there, and has taught in St. Thomas's Justice & Peace Studies Dept. for 13 years.

Why HAS there been no debate in St. Paul, Minnesota's second largest metropolitan area? Those who hear Jack debate are almost invariably won over by both his positions on issues and by his personality. I ask again, why no debates in St. Paul?

If it was 1988 Roger Moe's endorsement of Ciresi would have been a big deal. 2008? Not so much.

It was clear that Mr. Ciresi was not running the type of campaign he needed to secure the endorsement. Blanketing DFLers will emails doesn't work. You need to do as Franken and Pallmeyer have done and get out and meet the real people who are DFL activists and motivate them to caucus. Mike did not do this and that is why he is no longer in this race.

Bernice, I worked on a forum in Minneapolis which was put on entirely by volunteers active with a local senate district DFL ,which is 100% volunteer run. The other forums have likewise been put on by local volunteers. If you want a forum in St. Paul, you should contact your senate district party or maybe your city party, and not only ask for a forum, but offer to do a lot of the work, because the people you'll be asking to put it on are also doing this on weekends and after work. And they'll be glad to have your help.

Currently, the MPR Select a candidate poll has the following breakdown of those taking the survey:
Nelson-Pallmeyer 57%
Franken 24%
Coleman 19%.

As pointed out by Bernie, Jack hands down wins every debate that is held with Franken coming in a distant third. Jack's supporters are steadfast, passionate and enthusiastic. Franken's supporters are easily turned at the nominating convention as I have witnessed first hand. Franken has an immense staff that is paid. Jack has incredible volunteers that are committed to him for his years of leadership on environment and peace issues.

Clearly, the candidate that will make the clearest and cleanest choice for a strong campaign for the DFL and its values is Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Paul Wellstone did not when the Senate seat with big money. He won it with authenticity, enthusiam, and speaking with and for the people. If the DFL wants to regain the Senate seat, it times to go back to the basics and has a candidate who is clear and does not equivocate. Jack is from the progressive wing of the democratic party and a rightful heir to the national progressive movement that Paul Wellstone staked out. He rightfully bears Wellstone green on his campaign signs. Finally, Jack's supporters are steadfast and enthusiast. Franken's supporters are easily turned at the nominating convention. Stayed tuned as this race is just getting warmed up.

If Franken had been willing to have a debate in St. Paul, there would have been some already. But it became clear to his handlers that he lost support to Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer with every debate, so they stopped scheduling him for debates.

Now that it is a two person race, there will be a challenge up to debate again. I perdict that Franken's campaign director will keep that from happening. Franken will avoid a debate because it will so dramatically dispay the strength of Nelson-Pallmeyer's message and Jack as the messenger, and at the same time show Al as having a weaker, more watered down message, and show Al as being a lesser messenger for the progressive movement.

This should be a cautionary tale to every Democrat, especially those of you who are currently Franken supporters. Whoever wins the endorsement, in the general election, will have to debate Norm Coleman. Do you really want to take a chance on the candidate who is avoiding debating now?

Jack is so strong as a debater because he has such a terrific grasp of the issues and such passion. If he is the endorsed candidate, as he is so clean and nice and respectful, the Republicans will have to run on the issues. There he will win. If Al is the candidate, the Republicans will run on Al's personality. The issues will be avoided. The voters will be turned off, Norm will appear the nicer person, and Norm will win.