It’s been a tough week for Sen. Norm Coleman, with his polls numbers dropping and questions being raised in blogs about who buys his suits and what exactly his wife does to earn a paycheck.
So it wasn’t a shock when he walked solemnly up to a podium in his cavernous campaign headquarters in St. Paul this morning – without making eye contact with the dozen reporters seated on folding chairs who were expecting to hear him talk about the economy.
But instead, Coleman announced that, after much reflection Thursday during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, he had decided to drop all attack ads against Al Franken, his Democratic opponent in the hotly contested U.S. Senate race.
(Independent Dean Barkley is also on the ballot, but neither Coleman nor Franken has addressed negative attacks at him. In fact, many believe Barkley’s poll numbers have risen dramatically because of the mutual sniping by the other two.)
Coleman credits soul-searching for change of heart
Coleman said that much of his soul-searching and reflection focused on the nation’s financial mess and citizens’ fears for their jobs, their life savings and their children’s future and education.
“At times like this, politics should not add to negativity – it should lift people up with hope and a confident vision for the future,” he said.
“I decided that I was not all that interested in returning to Washington for six years based on the judgment of voters that I was not as bad as the other two guys,” he said. “I want folks to vote for me, not against the other guys.”
Coleman’s announcement was received with some skepticism. One reporter asked if he was doing it because the Democrats in Washington were spending more on attack ads on Franken’s behalf – that, in essence, Coleman was already being outgunned on the negatives.
“This is not about calculation, about being outgunned. This is about reflection,” he said. “I’m making a decision about how I’m received and how I want to win a race.”
Franken’s campaign issued a statement calling Coleman’s announcement “a stunt.”
Coleman said his new ads will talk about his record and what he can do for the state and the country. He says he will deal with attack ads by others only with a response defending his record, not with a counter-punch.
Coleman said that he can only control the ads from his campaign – those that say “I’m Norm Coleman, and I approve of this message.” But he said he’s asked national Republican groups to abide by his wishes. He said he made a similar request during his first Senate campaign in 2002, when Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash just days before the election.
Coleman said he told the National Republican Senate Committee at the time that he would disavow any attack ads made on his behalf in the final days of the campaign when former Vice President Walter Mondale replaced Wellstone on the ticket. The national group acceded to his wishes then, and he hopes they will now.
Coleman warns some negative ads may sneak through
Some negative ads or letters may already be in the pipeline and unable to be stopped, Coleman warned. “I raise this, because I want to avoid being caught up on a technicality while the good-faith effort is being made to pull these ads down,” he said.
“It’s a rule of thumb on both sides of the political aisle that negative ads work. I’m willing to put that theory to a test and trust the higher standards of the people of Minnesota,” he said.
His Senate opponents aren’t buying his statements, however.
Andy Barr, Franken’s campaign spokesman, said:
“Given that this week’s polls are clearly showing that Minnesotans are sick of Norm Coleman’s campaign of character assassination, today’s stunt rings as a cynical ploy designed to change the subject and avoid scrutiny of his own record. It’s like an arsonist burning down every house in the village and then asking to be named fire chief.
“It’s worth noting that even in his own statement, Norm Coleman makes it clear that he intends to continue attacking Al Franken. But we are proud of the campaign we’ve run, and we will remain focused on talking about the issues that matter to Minnesota and the change Al Franken wants to bring to Washington.”
Asked about Coleman’s plan to pull the attack ads, Christopher Truscott, a spokesman for Dean Barkley, said: “It’s about time.”
He also called it an “11th hour act” that “seems a little desperate.”
Truscott said the proliferation of attack ads by both Coleman and Franken has driven many voters into the Barkley camp.
“They’ve opened the door for us, and it’s been a benefit,” he said. “That’s not to say that Sen. Barkley [he was appointed by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura to fill out the final two months of Sen. Wellstone’s term in 2002] is not out working hard, but these ads opened the door. But they won’t win the election for us, so I don’t anticipate this change will have a real effect on us.”
Polls this week have Franken ahead of Coleman by 4 to 9 points, with Barkley getting support from 14 to 18 percent of those responding.
The three candidates meet Saturday at Breck School in Golden Valley for the second of five debates.
At the morning session, Coleman also addressed reports this week in several blogs and online sites that businessman Nasser Kazeminy, a Coleman friend and campaign contributor, bought suits for Colelman. He said he hadn’t responded earlier, because he didn’t think most news organizations would report unsubstantiated allegations raised by blogs.
“I thought responding would make a story out of a non-story,” he said. But he said he’s learned that refusing to respond can become a story of its own.
On the clothing allegation, he said: “Nobody except my wife or me bought my suits.”
He said he followed all Senate rules in reporting required gifts from lobbyists and friends.
He also attacked recent reports about his wife, Laurie. A Harper’s Magazine blog said she is employed by Minneapolis-based Hays Cos., which offers advice on risk management, commercial insurance, and employee benefits. The firm’s executives, their spouses and employees provided Coleman with $20,700 in campaign contributions between 2002 and 2006, the blog said. Then it said: “It’s not clear why a risk management firm would require the services of Laurie Coleman, an aspiring actress and the inventor of the Blo & Go, a hands-free hair-drying device…”
Norm Coleman said questions about his family are out of bounds and that his wife does, indeed, have a new job.
“My wife is a certified and licensed insurance agent – she works for a living – and her employer is pleased with her work – and she is pleased with her job. And that’s all anybody is entitled to know,” he said.
“Questions about my wife – about my children – about their private lives, jobs, work and school – are just that – private. And, they will remain that way.”
Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politics and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.