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

By Doug Grow | Tuesday, March 11, 2008 Get ready for a brutal fall showdown, political insiders say. The GOP is all set to attack Al Franken’s years of controversial remarks and satire.

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.