In Minnesota, what's likely to be the most expensive and closely watched U.S. Senate race in the nation has lately been consumed by talk of an old Playboy article, a Capitol Hill crash pad and whether a onetime professional wrestler will jump in the race next week.
The contest pits Republican incumbent Norm Coleman against former Saturday Night Live funnyman Al Franken — and quite possibly former Gov. Jesse Ventura.
At the big Fourth of July parade last week in Brainerd — best known as the mythical home of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe — the fuss was all about Franken, the Democratic-endorsed nominee for the U.S. Senate.
Franken's glad-handing there may have won him at least one Coleman fan. Swing voter Donna Stricker of Pequot Lakes says Franken made her think twice about who'll get her vote:
"He's got an impressive group of people following him today, which kind of makes you start to think maybe, you know, you should look at him a little more," she says.
Franken's 'Uncharted Territory'
In a state where Barack Obama leads John McCain in the polls by double digits, those same polls have Franken trailing Coleman by up to 10 percentage points. Swing voter Debbie Armstrong of Glenwood plans to vote for Coleman after what she's heard about Franken:
"What I've heard, I don't like," she says. "Just a little bit on radio and TV. ... I just know that I had a gut feeling I didn't like him. ... Don't know why."
It might be the income taxes Franken paid belatedly in 17 states, or the fine he faced for failing to pay workers' comp insurance for his corporation for several years in New York. More explosive, though, was a piece about virtual sex titled "Porn-O-Rama" that Franken penned for Playboy magazine eight years ago. In it, he praised the Internet as "a terrific learning tool" that helped his 12-year-old son write a sixth-grade report on bestiality.
Back at his campaign headquarters in a St. Paul strip mall, Franken says his 30-year career as a paid wiseguy has left his candidacy in what he calls "uncharted territory."
"This has never really happened before — someone who's a satirist and a writer. ... Satire uses certain techniques like irony and hyperbole and parody and those things that are very easy to take out of context," he says.
When Franken accepted the Democratic Party's endorsement at its state convention last month, he also made a public act of contrition. He apologized for having made what he called some inappropriate or downright offensive jokes. Franken now says he's ready to move on.
"I think the more women in Minnesota know about me, the better. You know, this'll go away," he says.
But it hasn't for Democrat Gwen Hamilton of Mora. Franken, she says, has not convinced her that he's serious.
"At first I thought he was fine," she says, "but now I've gotten to the point where I've heard so many disrespectful things that he's done and said in his other life that I'm just not in favor of him as yet."
Beyond Franken's past coming back to bite his campaign, the author of books including Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot has yet to make a convincing case for why he should be Minnesota's next senator, says elections expert David Schultz of Hamline University in St. Paul.
"He hasn't explained why he's qualified to be U.S. senator and what he hopes to accomplish. And maybe he's talked about that, but that's not coming across," Schultz says.
That's not the case, though, in Coleman's latest TV ad. In it, the Republican incumbent's actress wife, Laurie, does the talking in their St. Paul kitchen: "They'll say Norm is a rubber stamp for the president, but he's been ranked as one of the most independent senators. They'll say he's in the pocket of Big Oil, but he voted to take away their special tax breaks. Actually, there is a special interest that Norm will answer to: Hey, Norm, will you take out the trash?"
Once the Democratic mayor of St. Paul who later turned a staunch supporter of President Bush, Coleman is now trying to distance himself from the unpopular president to woo independents and conservative Democrats.
Coleman On The Defensive
Talking in the room next to his St. Paul kitchen, Coleman acknowledges that his ads don't mention that he's also a Republican.
"You don't ignore your party; on the other hand, part of what my whole record of public service has been about is bringing people together to get things done, and that's what I sell and I think that's what folks are looking for in these times," Coleman says.
But he has been forced on the defensive by news reports about his staying in the million-dollar Capitol Hill townhouse of a Republican operative who's done more than a million dollars' worth of business with him — and paying only $600 a month in rent for a basement unit, rent he twice failed to pay. Coleman makes no apologies, though, for occupying what he calls "a shoebox."
"Is there some benefit I got having a room that literally you can only fix the bed on one side, you got to crawl on the bed to change the sheets because it's that small? I don't think that's a benefit that most people would even for a moment be concerned about," Coleman says.
Brian Melendez, who heads Minnesota's Democratic Party, sharply disagrees.
"If Norm Coleman is accepting an inappropriate gift from somebody that he's doing business with, it is a violation of Senate ethics and it's something that Minnesotans ought to care very much about," Melendez says.
'A Real Giant Of A Race'
Many Minnesotans, though, can't get excited about Coleman or Franken. Republican Jerry Newman of Wyoming, Minn., likes the rumblings people in the state have been hearing that former governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura is ready to climb into the ring.
"This could be a real giant of a race if Jesse gets in there," Newman says. "He's a crazy person that can create a lot of interest."
University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs says Ventura could win. He says polls show Ventura's prospects are better now than when he beat Coleman and a Democrat to win the governorship as in independent candidate a decade ago.
"He's coming in with about a quarter of the vote, and he's not even declared his candidacy. That is much better than where he was in 1998, where he started off in single digits and frankly was a joke candidate," Jacobs says.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey agrees that things have indeed changed with Ventura — but not for the better.
"The Jesse Ventura of 2008 is not the Jesse Ventura of 1998. Minnesotans know Jesse Ventura, and they're still recovering from the hangover of the Ventura administration," Carey says.
"Getting over a hangover?" Ventura counters. "The only hangover they had was the fact that I beat their boy Norm Coleman, and they suffered a four-year hangover from that."
Ventura's True Intentions
After months of refusing to speak with any news media, Ventura agreed Sunday to an interview with NPR in a parking lot in suburban St. Paul. He still insists he won't announce whether he's running until July 15, the deadline for filing in Minnesota.
But when he hears that his rivals think he's simply trying to promote his latest book, Ventura seems to reveal his true intentions. He angrily says he is running — primarily because of Coleman's votes for an Iraq war that Ventura vehemently opposes:
"That's the reason I run. Not to sell books. I run because it angers me," Ventura says.
And here's Ventura again sounding as if he has already made up his mind: "All you Minnesotans, take a good hard look at all three of us. And you decide, if you were in a dark alley, which one of the three of us would you want with you," he says.
It's a choice Minnesotans could well face come November.