Senate debate at Farmfest, it turns out, is clearly held in ‘Coleman Country’

During today's initial Senate debate, Al Franken and Sen. Norm Coleman seem amused by the comments of Dean Barkley, center.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
During today’s initial Senate debate, Al Franken and Sen. Norm Coleman seem amused by the comments of Dean Barkley, center.

The first debate of the election season between challenger Al Franken and Norm Coleman didn’t take long to get rolling today. There were no false smiles to kick off the opener. No pats on the back.

In fact, it took Franken, the DFL-endorsed candidate for the U.S. Senate, roughly 15 seconds before he was taking his first verbal roundhouse at Coleman, the Republican incumbent.

In response to a question from an ag journalist about energy independence, Franken said, “Norm Coleman is in the pocket of Big Oil. He’s received more contributions from Big Oil than any politician in the history of Minnesota.”

There was a hush in the massive tent at the annual Farmfest, which is being held near Morgan, about 100 miles west of the Twin Cities. One minute, people had been strolling through the carnival-like atmosphere of this annual event, eating fair food, greeting neighbors, telling jokes.

The next moment, they were hearing the challenger’s verbal blast.

Crowd cool to Franken blasts
It apparently was not what they came to hear. Franken’s opening was greeted with tepid applause.

When it was the Coleman’s turn to speak to the opening question, he went into his rapid-fire style, words pouring smoothly from his lips: “You’ve got to tap into more domestic production. Nuclear. Renewable. You gotta do the whole ball of wax.”

Big applause.

Coleman and Franken weren’t the only participants in the 1½-hour debate. The lineup also included two from the Independence Party — Steve Williams, the endorsed candidate, and Dean Barkley, its best-known candidate. Several others among the field of 18 candidates — DFLer Priscilla Lord Faris, the Independence Party’s Jack Uldrich and a host of lesser-knowns not invited to take part — also were circulating at the edges of the crowd, looking for a bit of attention.

In the end, Barkley started gaining some attention from the crowd of several hundred by mixing humor and contempt for Washington. Williams got a laugh, too, with this line about immigration: “The only people who need to be deported are the people in Washington.”

But, of course, most of the attention was focused on Coleman and Franken. Coleman was clearly the favorite of the crowd, which did not appear to care for Franken’s contempt of the senator. Even so, Franken kept blasting.

“Do you like the leadership we’ve had for the last 7½ years?” Franken asked at one point.

There was almost no response.

“This guy,” Franken said, pointing at Coleman, “hasn’t been working for you. He’s been working for President Bush and special interests.”

Some uncomfortable throat-clearing from the crowd.

“The Bush-Coleman economy has driven people into the ditch, and Coleman was riding shotgun,” said Franken.

A couple of very low boos.

Meantime, Coleman was upbeat. He didn’t look at all like a Minnesota farmer, what with his blue, perfectly pressed, sweat-free shirt and his beige trousers. (Coleman’s wife, Laurie, was dressed almost identically.) Franken, meanwhile, was wearing a blue shirt, too — a rumpled one.

Coleman spoke to the farmers as if he loved the smell of manure in the morning. In fact, at one point he draw applause by saying, “Manure is not a hazardous waste.”

Nobody asked him how he and Laurie would feel about living downwind from a massive feedlot.

Coleman at home with his ‘folks’
Coleman talked about “my livestock folks” and my “poultry folks” and my “sugar beet folks” with great confidence. Acronyms of various farm programs rolled off his tongue. And he got big applause when he took a shot back at Franken for blaming “Bush-Coleman” for high gasoline prices.

“Gas has doubled since Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House,” Coleman said.

As the crowd applauded with gusto, Coleman smiled that big smile. “I bring people together” for the good of all Minnesota farmers, he said. “I get things done.”

(DFL Rep. Collin Peterson, head of the powerful House ag committee, says that Coleman will have a lot of explaining to do to Minnesota sugar beet farmers before he gets their vote. Coleman’s support of the Central America Free Trade Agreement has brought more Central American sugar into the U.S. market. But Peterson, wearing a baseball cap, blue jeans, a sweaty knit shirt and cowboy boots, shrugged his shoulders at Coleman’s political support of farmers in general. “He’s been sort of mixed,” Peterson said.)

When the subject was infrastructure — roads, railways and barges are big issues in rural Minnesota — Barkley gave the most honest answer of any of the candidates.

“There is no free lunch,” he said. “If we’re going to fix the bridges and the roads, somebody is going to have to pay for it. Bonding. That’s the Republican approach. Let our children pay for it. That’s financial child abuse. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”

That response seemed to bring about a collective gulp from the crowd. Was he hinting at a tax increase?

Coleman put people at ease.

“I support bonding for transportation,” he said. “I disagree with a gas tax increase. There are other ways to fund infrastructure.”

He didn’t specify what those ways might be, but the crowd loved him and his build-now, pay-later approach.

Franken, Coleman find positives in their performances
Over and over, this crowd showed its appreciation for Coleman, though Franken said later that he thought he was winning people over as the debate progressed.

“The response you get at the end is more important than the response you get at the beginning,” Franken said of the reception he received.

Hmmm. Franken must have picked up things from the crowd many of us missed.

For his part, Coleman was clearly pleased at the way things had gone.  He said he was not surprised that Franken started swinging from the get-go.

“He probably checked his poll numbers before he got here and said, ‘I’ve got to go after him,’ ” said Coleman. “He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. But I think people want optimistic, uplifting leadership. That’s what I am.”

Coleman expressed mock empathy for Franken trying to win over a rural crowd.

“He’s been living on the Upper East Side in New York while I’ve been out here,” Coleman said. “He was living on the Upper East Side while I was meeting with the livestock folks. He comes into this cold. I felt comfortable.”

Then, he spotted “a close friend,” a farmer.

He waved and smiled, and his close friend waved back. For all his big-city style, this was Coleman country.

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.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Tom Poe on 08/06/2008 - 01:32 pm.

    Your article emphasizes the audience as one made up of folks that don’t understand the issues Coleman addresses, or they’re hoping to avoid addressing the issues Coleman addresses. I would have thought the folks in Morgan would be more attached to reality than your article impunes on them. Minnesota is going you-know-where in a handbag this year, and the folks in Morgan need to wake up. Whatever’s been happening under Coleman’s watch doesn’t work. It’s time they pay attention.

  2. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 08/06/2008 - 01:18 pm.

    It’s odd that Franken is always depicted as “attacking” Coleman, when virtually all of his statements and advertisements have been about Coleman’s political positions and record; yet Coleman is the one airing ads focused solely on Franken’s tax mistakes, past jokes (or potential jokes, in the case of the SNL writer’s room bit), and a clearly satirical piece he once wrote for Playboy. And Coleman can then state, unchallenged, that he is the candidate of “optimistic, uplifting leadership”? Say what you will about Franken as a candidate, and I am certainly no fan, but I’d much rather listen to his political “attacks” than Coleman’s constant (and often deliberately misleading) personal attacks.

    I know what the Coleman campaign is trying to do — plant the question “Is this the kind of guy you can envision as a Senator?” — but there has to be a more respectable way to accomplish that, and I’m honestly not sure WHY they are trying to do it anyway. As a scandal-free incumbent in a solidly purple state, Coleman should have no trouble defeating an inexperienced and not terribly likable newcomer, right? Has he just concluded it’s safer to run a Karl-Rove-style attack campaign from the get-go, no matter what the circumstances? At least John McCain had some negative poll numbers to push his latest offensive. I just wish Franken was the kind of candidate that could make this strategy backfire, as I have lost a lot of respect for Coleman recently.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/06/2008 - 08:53 pm.

    A term I’ve been hearing lately describing groups such as those gathered at Morgan is “low information.” Their opinions are based, not on reading or following TV commentary — except maybe for Fox News — but from judging “the person, not the party.” Thus, they voted for W, (this is the Red district in Minnesota) who was someone they’d like to share a beer with. Norm presents himself well as a likeable guy, (so does Tim Pawlenty for that matter), and that issue, “Do I LIKE the guy?” wins the day. Al, in his confrontational mode, by pointing out the problems with Norm’s senatorial votes, came across, probably, (I wasn’t there) as more abrasive. Can’t have anyone picking on “my guy”!

  4. Submitted by Jack Shepard on 08/06/2008 - 05:05 am.

    About Al Franken but you are right, Al Franken better begin to start praying that I, Jack Shepard eliminate Norm Coleman from the Minnesota U.S. Senate Race in our GOP Primary on Sept. 9, 2008.

    Al Franken Race against Norm Coleman is in big trouble, No one knows what Al Franken polling numbers are if Al Franken was to run against Jack Shepard in the General Election in November.

    Remember the comment written about me I like the best, “To Catch Jack Shepard I guess we are going to have to elect him.”

    I just do not see how the Union Workers of Minnesota can let Norm Coleman get re-elected when Steve Hunter said, “ Norm Coleman is standing on their “Working families of Minnesota’s” Throats:” a more complete statement is below

    The true facts are Sen. Norm Coleman is a smooth talker, as you say, “rapid-fire style, words pouring smoothly from his lips” and will say anything to get elected. There is no reason to think that with Norm Coleman’s low ratings that he is a shoe in. You have to admit in Minnesota Norm Coleman is at 50/50 at best in people who support him.

    Steve Hunter, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, recently at a new conference called on Coleman to change his ways and put working families first. “Sen. Coleman isn’t standing with working families,” Hunter said. “He’s standing on their throats

    Doug, when you say, “As the crowd applauded with gusto, Coleman smiled that big smile. “I bring people together”- it is the best example of unfortunately Coleman’s smooth talk is believed by the Minnesota Voters, as you know in 2003 Norm Coleman voted 98% on the republican side of the aisle please Doug tell me how that is partisan and bring people together.

    Al Franken could have done his home word better like the fact that Coleman will have a lot of explaining to do to Minnesota sugar beet farmers before he gets their vote. Coleman’s support of the Central America Free Trade Agreement has brought more Central American sugar into the U.S. market, harming the Minnesota sugar beet farmers.

    When Franken said, “Norm Coleman is in the pocket of Big Oil. He’s received more contributions from Big Oil than any politician in the history of Minnesota” like you said, “It apparently was not what they came to hear. Franken’s opening was greeted with tepid applause” So Norm did, received more contributions from Big Oil than any politician in the history of Minnesota but the Minnesota Voters do not grasp the sad importance of this to because this was a re-election donation reward for Norm Coleman to do the bidding of Big Oil to the harm of the average Minnesotan.

    I ask you, Doug and the Minnesota Voters should the oil companies this year a hard year for the struggling workers of America caused by the sky high oil price be allowed to make the largest profits in the history of the Big Oil companies in America because of all the tax breaks that Norm Coleman voted for Al Franken could have said his statement in a form that the Minnesota Voters could have better understood.

    It was not what Al Franken said, but how he said it, soon I am for changing smooth talking Norm Coleman’s name to Teflon Norm Coleman; he sure can talk his way believably out of anything

  5. Submitted by Dion Goldman on 08/07/2008 - 07:07 am.

    Minnesota farmers like DFL policies but Republican values, or at least the moral highground they have sucessfully claimed so far. Why are infamous “johns” caught in St. Paul prostitution stings always seem to be Republicans?

    Senator Barkley scored a lot of points from the audience but the media was too busy with Coleman and Franken to notice. Barkley will come on strong in Novemeber.

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