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Franken’s jokes, Coleman’s digs: Do voters really care?

On a daily basis, the Minnesota Republican and DFL parties can be counted on to say something nasty about the other party’s U.S. Senate candidate.

On a daily basis, the Minnesota Republican and DFL parties can be counted on to say something nasty about the other party’s U.S. Senate candidate. This has been going on for months, but Tuesday seemed to be a particularly vitriolic day.

The Republicans called a “news conference” to critique more of Al Franken’s humor from the past. This time, the Repubs were deeply troubled by, in their words, “a series of shocking and offensive jokes he made in 2000 regarding the deadly serious topic of child abuse.”

Ron Carey, the state Republican Party’s chairman and humor critic, cited a New York Observer article about a Franken performance in New York in which Franken was telling jokes about the imagined child abuse of Rob Reiner.

“There’s never a joke about child abuse that was funny – but it didn’t stop Al Franken from joking about it,” Carey said in a statement.

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While Republicans were dredging up more of Franken’s humor from the past so that they could continue to be deeply troubled, the DFL was talking about Sen. Norm Coleman’s acceptance of campaign money from Sen. Ted Stevens, who now is the indicted senator from Alaska.

With word that Stevens has been indicted for making false statements on his Senate financial-disclosure forms, Republican senators across the country were acting as if they were deeply troubled and hugely upset. They were dumping funds they’d received from Stevens’ PAC, Northern Lights, and giving the loot to charities.

Republican Sens. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, Gordon Smith of Oregon, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Susan Collins of Maine quickly announced they were getting rid of Stevens-related contributions.

DFLers noted, however that, at last report, Coleman wasn’t giving up the $20,000 he’s received from the Stevens’ PAC or contributions from Stevens’ oil industry cronies.

Unending questions about qualifications
These are old themes: Franken’s not qualified to be a senator because of tasteless humor in the past. Coleman’s not qualified because of relationships – financial and apartment leases – from powerful groups or, in this case, a tainted senator who is tied to powerful groups.

Two questions: Are either of these SERIOUS ethical issues? Do voters care?

David Schultz, the Hamline University professor who is sort of the Ethics Doctor of Minnesota, says “no” to both. So why do both parties keep hammering away?

“There’s some evidence negative campaigning depresses voters in the center,” said Schultz.  “They end up thinking, ‘what difference does it make.’ ”

But there are other reasons for the unending series of attacks from the parties, and, in some cases, the candidates. “You’re trying to get your side hot and bothered,” Schultz said. “And you’re trying to knock the other guy off message.”

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In the last couple of weeks, Schultz believes Franken has done a good job of getting back on message. But, in scoring Tuesday’s exchange, he figures the Repubs probably manage to trim the DFLers.

The child abuse stuff, he said, might stick in the minds of some female voters – and that’s the group Franken needs to do much better with than he has done. 

Coleman’s sweetheart apartment deal? “I bounced that off a couple of my friends,” Schultz said. “They said, ‘Oh my, a senator gets a good deal on an apartment?’ ”In all likelihood most Minnesotans don’t care about either Franken’s humor or Coleman’s buddies.

“When gas is $4 a gallon, the economy’s tanking, you’re having your house foreclosed, the debt is out of control, somehow these things don’t seem very important,” Schultz said.

But both parties will keep hammering away because they’re so, um, deeply troubled.