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With state caucuses looming, DFL’s Senate candidates ramp up campaigns to challenge Coleman

By Doug Grow | Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008
Shades of Paul Wellstone! Al Franken and Mike Ciresi still get most of the attention, but key party progressives are leaning toward a college prof with some of that same liberal appeal.

Al Franken and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
U.S. Senate candidates Al Franken and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer took part in Sunday’s forum, sponsored by TakeAction Minnesota.

At the conclusion of Sunday’s forum, before more than 300 members of the progressive organization TakeAction Minnesota, Al Franken grabbed Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer‘s hand and held it aloft.

Franken’s move seemed to surprise Nelson-Pallmeyer. But he played along. The two U.S. Senate candidates stood there, arms uplifted, the crowd cheering.

Franken might have grabbed Mike Ciresi‘s hand, too. But it wasn’t there to be grabbed. Ciresi couldn’t stick around for the forum because of a scheduling conflict.

This was Nelson-Pallmeyer’s day to be the power pol. A straw poll following the forum gave Nelson-Pallmeyer 140 votes (54 percent), Franken 107 votes (41 percent) and the absent Ciresi nine votes (3.5 percent). Three people opted for none of the above.

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Senate DFL candidates gearing up for Tuesday’s caucuses
With the state’s political caucuses looming Tuesday, this was a big deal for Nelson-Pallmeyer, who teaches justice and peace studies at the University of St. Thomas and is generally considered the most liberal of the DFL candidates. He’s the guy who is always listed as an afterthought in mainstream media reports of the DFL Senate race, as in “Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and Jim Cohen are also running.” He had defeated Franken in a contest that Ciresi wanted no part of.

But it also can be argued that the straw poll, which is NOT an endorsement, doesn’t mean much because TakeAction Minnesota represents the DFL’s political left.

Ciresi attended only the potluck portion of the event, bringing with him a wild rice salad to share.

“That’s what Nelson-Pallmeyer brought, too,” Ciresi was told.

“That shouldn’t surprise you,” Ciresi said. “This is Minnesota. What’s more Minnesota than wild rice?”

Actually, brownies appear to be more Minnesota. There were eight varieties of brownies at the potluck. And because this was a progressive event, several of the varieties didn’t have nuts. There also were some vegan dips. But there was no red Jell-O.

Anyway, Ciresi came and schmoozed while the others ate and then had to leave before the conversation turned serious.

Meantime, Franken showed up after the potluck, meaning he didn’t have to bring any food. He just needed to satisfy the political appetites of the crowd. But even though he had a number of supporters in the room and even though he received enthusiastic applause, he must have known that on this day Nelson-Pallmeyer would be a very strong foe. For Franken, holding on to Nelson-Pallmeyer’s hand at the end of the forum was a little like grabbing onto the coat-tails of a powerful pol and hoping for the best.

TakeAction members tend to be active DFLers
TakeAction Minnesota has some of the most active DFLers in the state, and they tend to work hard for candidates. They certainly will show up at Tuesday’s caucuses, and many of them will end up as delegates to the state convention. Many also seem to be starting to believe that Nelson-Pallmeyer just might have the best chance of defeating Republican Sen. Norm Coleman this fall.

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If this election year is about “change,” no candidate represents change so dramatically as Nelson-Pallmeyer, who over and over again talks about how we all are in “the most important decade in human history.” Then, he launches into a sober talk on the reality of global warming and how the United States must move quickly to “a sustainable, renewable energy economy.”

His late-starting, word-of-mouth campaign makes those of Franken and Ciresi seem almost conventional. It’s a campaign that leaves him facing two major obstacles, beyond taking on the two heavyweights in the contest.

One, his name likely will be only vaguely familiar to most DFL caucus-goers. Second, he faces the “Jack But … .” problem. Though his message resonates with a lot of DFLers they often say, “The guy I really like is Jack, but … I don’t know if he’s electable.”

“I need people to drop the ‘but,’ ” admitted Nelson-Pallmeyer.

Mike Ciresi
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
Senate candidate Mike Ciresi schmoozes with participants at the pre-forum potluck dinner. He had to leave early because of a scheduling conflict.

On Sunday, he became just a bit more of a presence in the contest to win endorsement in what will be a Senate race of national significance. Other than attention to who has the most money (Franken), this intriguing race has been largely overlooked by Minnesota media.

That doesn’t mean the campaigns haven’t been hard at it. For the first time in anyone’s memory, both Ciresi and Franken have been running television ads before the caucuses.

“When are you going to start running your TV ads?” Nelson-Pallmeyer was asked.

“Next week,” he said and then laughed. “See, I can be a politician. I can tell a fib, too.”

He laughed again.

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“No ads,” he said.

There’s a good reason for that. Little money.

Presidential preference vote likely to draw first-timers
One of the reasons for these early, hefty expenditures for ads is that this year’s presidential race is going to draw record numbers of Minnesotans to DFL caucuses. Many who attend likely will be first-timers who will cast a vote in the binding presidential preference vote but then head home before other caucus business gets started.

But some of those first-timers may stick around for the meaty part of the caucus when delegates to the district conventions will be selected. The TV ads are aimed at winning over at least a few converts.

The ads also are aimed at assuring DFLers that they will have a viable foe to go against Coleman.

These candidates have been around the state a dozen times in the last few months. They know that some DFLers don’t believe anyone in this batch can win come November. Each has a flaw. Franken has that long history of satire and name-calling. Ciresi, the superstar courtroom lawyer, hasn’t seemed to get traction out on the campaign trail. And Nelson-Pallmeyer, ummm, who?

Almost certainly, the convention will endorse one of these three candidates, and they all have said they will honor the endorsement process. Only once in recent memory of party historians has the convention not endorsed. That was in 1986, when the DFL convention did not endorse a controversial incumbent state auditor, Bob Mattson. Arne Carlson went on to defeat Mattson.

Will surprise candidate emerge?
But some DFLers hope someone with a big name — such as state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page — would step into the fray and run in the fall primary.

A message was left with Page.

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“How do you like the sound of Sen. Page?”

He did not respond to the question.

Incredibly, even Arne Carlson’s name has been drifting in the political wind. One rumor claimed that the former Republican governor, who two years ago renounced his membership in the party, would become a DFLer and run for the Senate.

Carlson, reached at his winter home in Florida, laughed at the possibility.

“I’m 73 years old,” he said. “My day has come and gone.”

Then, Carlson launched into a little speech that showed his empathy for Franken, Ciresi and Nelson-Pallmeyer.

“Global warming, global economics, the Mideast,” he said. “These are hugely complex problems, and what do we read about? Which candidate has raised the most money.”

At this point, there’s no DFL candidate stepping out from behind Door No. 4. And perhaps there doesn’t need to be. These are three capable people, who represent clear contrasts to Coleman, or what Coleman was for his first four years in Washington. The closer the election comes, the farther left Coleman drifts.

Candidates hammer away at each other, but nicely
The three DFLers have been hammering at each other for months. Of course, each of the campaigns “slips out” unkind things about the other campaigns. For example, operatives for both Nelson-Pallmeyer and Ciresi are taking considerable delight in the item in CJ’s Star Tribune column about Franken having an immature moment with a young Republican at Carleton College. “See, he can’t control himself.”

But the public discourse has remained civil. Sometimes, almost nice.

In the midst of Sunday’s forum, for example, Franken complimented Nelson-Pallmeyer.

“I want to applaud Jack,” he said. “He was speaking out against the war long before any other candidate in this race.”

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, who faces an uphill battle for the DFL nomination, won the TakeAction poll Sunday.

At another point, Franken, who as Mr. Candidate generally plays it straight, was able to crack a bit of a joke.

One of Nelson-Pallmeyer’s spiels, leading up to a serious point, is about children.

“If you have children, or someone in your family has children or you know someone who has children, raise your hand,” Nelson-Pallmeyer says.

On Sunday, Franken listened to this, watched all the hands go up and then stared into the crowd.

“Jack,” he said, “over there. There’s someone who doesn’t have his hand up.”

Laughter all around, then back to the serious stuff.

Campaigns ready secret — and not-so-secret — caucus plans
None of the three ever has won a race for political office. All of the three claim to have “secret strategies” for how they’ll attract the most backers to the caucuses.

There are some not-so-secret realities, too.

Franken points out that he does have the most big labor endorsements, but Ciresi’s people say those endorsements don’t reflect the rank and file.

Franken, Ciresi’s people agree, does draw the biggest crowds in his travels around the state. But that’s because he’s a celebrity, they say, not because people are going to come to caucuses and support him. Ciresi is meeting people in groups as small as a half-dozen, and those are the people who will be active on caucus night and move on to the district and state conventions, they argue.

Meantime, Larry Weiss, political strategist for Nelson-Pallmeyer, says he’s hopeful, too.

“Wherever Jack speaks, he wins people over,” Weiss said. “There are a lot of people looking at the perceived front-runner (Franken) and saying, ‘My God, if he wins, he’ll get torn to shreds.”’

Nelson-Pallmeyer supporters will say that if Franken is the front-runner, it’s important that Ciresi remains strong right to the DFL convention, which begins June 6. They want it to be an open contest as the convention begins because they believe that Nelson-Pallmeyer, a gifted speaker, could pluck off uncommitted delegates who hear the St. Thomas prof for the first time. They also can see him being most delegates’ second choice if there’s a protracted floor flight.

The numbers these three candidates are trying to juggle in attempting to get their supporters in control of caucuses are staggering.

There could be a record 100,000 DFLers showing up at the party’s 4,000 precinct caucuses, but no one knows how many of them will stay after the presidential poll. On caucus night, about 10,000 people will be selected, by vote or by acclamation, to attend 120 Senate District and County Unit conventions.

Many of those will be committed to one of the candidates but large numbers will be uncommitted. At the Senate District and County Unit conventions, which will be held at various times up to April 6, 1,200 delegates will be selected to the state convention. Each of the 120 conventions is required by DFL rule to come up with gender-balanced delegate slates.

Despite those big numbers, Jeff Blodgett, a key strategist in the late Paul Wellstone’s first stunning Senate win, said the candidates must keep their focus on “a very well-defined and small universe.” That means they must identify and connect with those not only most likely to attend caucuses but be active in the push to end up as a state delegate.

All three main Senate candidates have pledged to honor the party’s endorsement, which likely won’t come on the first ballot. Not even Wellstone, another college prof, was able to win first-ballot approval in his first Senate run.

“First ballot, he was in the 30s (of the 60 percent needed),” said Blodgett. “It took six ballots to win. The key in a two-person race is to come in first on the first ballot. There’s an institutional momentum that builds up for the leader. But with more than two people, then you can have a situation where those in second and third can team up.”

On Sunday, a third viable candidate may have emerged.