ROCHESTER, MINN. — What a difference a few hours can make.
Saturday morning, virtually everyone at the DFL state convention here thought it would take multiple ballots before either Al Franken or Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer would win endorsement for the U.S. Senate race. Many were even speculating that if it got to four ballots, Nelson-Pallmeyer could win.
But at 1:15 p.m., the first ballot was held. There wouldn’t be a second.
Franken, who was supposed to be damaged goods, won 62 percent of the delegate support. And that was it.
He is the DFL’s endorsed candidate for the U.S. Senate and, barring some increasingly unlikely primary challenge, will face the Republican’s endorsed candidate, incumbent Norm Coleman, in November.
A major momentum turn-around
What happened between 9 a.m. and 1:15 that turned what was supposed to be a close race into a slam dunk?
Was it Franken’s seemingly genuine apology to the delegates for writings in such publications as Playboy?
“It kills me that things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room and people in this state that they can’t count on me to be a champion for women, a champion for all Minnesotans,” Franken said in a speech before the first ballot. “. . . .I’m sorry for that, because that’s not who I am. . . . For 35 years, I was a writer. I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren’t funny. Some of them were inappropriate. Some of them were downright offensive.”
He made no effort to describe the work of a “satirist.” He simply apologized.
He received huge applause.
Even U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a 4th District Democrat who had suggested a week ago that some of Franken’s work was so horrid that he’d hurt all DFLers if he was the party’s Senate nominee, seemed mildly impressed by the apology.
“It was a start,” she said.
It should be noted that McCollum was booed by many of the delegates when she was introduced Saturday. It also should be noted that prior to his apology, Franken had won the endorsement of the DFL Feminist Caucus, or at least its board. There are rumors that the endorsement has miffed many in the caucus.
Winning factors include apology, labor, early commitments
But there was more than an apology at play in Franken’s win.
Labor was firmly with Franken, always an important factor in a DFL convention. There were some unions that hadn’t even bothered to let Nelson-Pallmeyer screen for endorsement.
In some respects, that’s understandable. The screenings were done — and Franken was winning endorsements — months ago, when Nelson-Pallmeyer was being taken seriously only by a few of his diehard supporters.
Both Nelson-Pallmeyer and his floor manager, Erik Peterson, think that the morning belief that there it would be multiple ballots to produce a nominee might have proved fatal to their hopes of pulling off an upset victory.
Many convention delegates, they said, had come out of caucuses and sub-caucuses committed to Franken.
“So many people told me they would vote for Al on the first ballot because they felt they had to honor that commitment,” Nelson-Pallmeyer said. “But they said with the second ballot they would vote their conscience and vote for me.”
There surely were other factors as well.
Franken, in both an hour-long question-and-answer session and in his speech, was at his best. That’s still not as good as Nelson-Pallmeyer. But it meant that Nelson-Pallmeyer didn’t overwhelm Franken, as he has in some debates and forums.
Whatever the reason, Franken’s victory was total and complete.
“A very good day,” said Franken, who looked both drained and relieved.
It was so complete that it may have closed the door on any possible primary challenge from former candidate Mike Ciresi, or any other DFLer who might have thought Franken would be beatable. Ciresi was not available for comment.
“I think this closes down any chance of a primary,” said former party chairman Rick Stafford, a Franken delegate at this convention. “The only thing that could change that is if more things come out that open the window again.”
Republicans at the convention were disappointed that Franken won so swiftly and a primary fight now seems less likely. Still, they promised there will be more unsavory linen coming out of the Franken closet.
In fact, Ron Carey, the Republican chairman, and Mark Drake, its communications director, who attended the DFL convention, were laughing at the start of the day.
“Mark is doing our research,” said Carey. “Sometimes, I don’t think we should even be paying him he’s having such a good time. We hear laughter coming out of his office and say to each other, ‘Guess Mark found out something more on Franken.’ ”
“He’s a researcher’s dream,” said Drake.
For his part, Franken said he hopes that the apology he offered in his convention speech will put an end to issues about his work history.
“The media has a role to play in this,” Franken said. “The media has a responsibility to concentrate on the issues that matter to Minnesotans.”
But at least some delegates left the convention thinking that Franken’s writings won’t easily be forgotten in many areas of Minnesota.
“There’s too much baggage with this guy,” said former state Rep. Ted Winter, a farmer from Fulda. “Rural people are sensitive to that kind of stuff.”
But Franken and his supporters say the issues that matter to Minnesotans will be things like $4-a-gallon gasoline, not old Playboys.
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.