STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you're one of those people who thinks the Midwest is boring, pay attention, please. In Minnesota, what is likely to be the most expensive and closely watched US Senate race in the nation has lately been consumed by an old Playboy article, a Capitol Hill crash pad, and whether a one-time professional wrestler will jump into the race. The contest pits Republican incumbent Norm Coleman against former "Saturday Night Live" funnyman Al Franken, and quite possibly former Governor Jesse Ventura. NPR's David Welna has the story.
DAVID WELNA: Brainerd, Minnesota may be best known as the mythical home of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. But at the big Fourth of July parade in Brainerd last week, the fuss was all about Al Franken, the Democratic-endorsed nominee for the US Senate.
Unidentified Woman: Yay, Al.
Mr. AL FRANKEN (Democratic Senate Nominee): Thank you. Thank you. Hey, happy Fourth of July. Happy Independence Day, son.
WELNA: Franken's glad-handing in Brainerd may have won him at least one backer of his Republican opponent, Senator Norm Coleman. Swing voter Donna Stricker(ph) of Pequot Lakes, Minnesota says Franken made her think twice about who'll get her vote.
Ms. DONNA STRICKER: He's got an impressive group of people following him today, which kind of makes you start to think, maybe I'll look at him a little more.
WELNA: 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, Minnesota plans to vote for Coleman after what she's heard about Franken.
Ms. DEBBIE ARMSTRONG: What I've heard, I have - I don't like.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: A little bit on the radio and TV.
WELNA: And what is it that you didn't like that you heard?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I'm not sure. I just know that I had a gut feeling that I didn't like him. Don't know why.
WELNA: It might be the income taxes Franken paid belatedly in 17 states, or the fine he faced for failing to pay worker's comp insurance for several years in New York. More explosive, though, was a piece about virtual sex titled "Porn-a-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 wise guy has left his candidacy in what he calls uncharted territory.
Mr. FRANKEN: This has never really happened before, someone who's a satirist and a writer who's had a long - you know, and satire uses certain techniques like irony and hyperbole and parody. And those things are very easy to take out of context.
WELNA: 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.
Mr. FRANKEN: I think more women in Minnesota know about me, the better. You know, this will go away.
WELNA: But it hasn't for Democrat Gwen Hamilton of Mora, Minnesota. Franken, she says, has not convinced her he's serious.
Ms. GWEN HAMILTON: At first, I thought he was fine. 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.
WELNA: But beyond Franken's past coming back to bite his campaign, Hamline University elections expert David Schulz says 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.
Professor DAVID SCHULZ (Hamline University): He hasn't explained, you know, why he's qualified to be US senator and what he hopes to accomplish. And maybe he's talked about that, but that's not coming across.
WELNA: That's not the case, though, in Norm Coleman's latest TV ad. In it, the Republican incumbent's actress wife Laurie does the talking in their St. Paul kitchen.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Ms. LAURIE COLEMAN (Actor): 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?
Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): I got it, honey.
WELNA: Once the Democratic mayor of St. Paul, who later turned supporter of President Bush, Coleman is now trying to distance himself from the unpopular president to woo independents and conservative Democrats. Talking in the room next to his St. Paul kitchen, Coleman acknowledges his ads don't mention he's also a Republican.
Sen. COLEMAN: You don't ignore your party. On the other hand, part of what my whole record of public service has been about 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.
WELNA: But Coleman's been forced on the defensive by news reports about him staying in the million-dollar Capital 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 rent for a basement unit, rent he twice failed to pay. Coleman makes no apologies, though, for occupying what he calls a shoebox.
Sen. COLEMAN: 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 kind of 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.
WELNA: Brian Melendez, who heads Minnesota's Democratic Party, sharply disagrees.
Mr. BRIAN MELENDEZ (Minnesota Democratic Party): 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.
WELNA: Many Minnesotans, though, can't get excited about either Coleman or Franken. Republican Jerry Newman of Wyoming, Minnesota likes the rumblings in the state have been hearing that former governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura is ready to climb into the ring.
Mr. JERRY NEWMAN: This could be a real giant of a race if Jesse gets in there. He's a crazy person that can create a lot of interest.
Professor LAWRENCE JACOBS (University of Minnesota): I think Ventura could well win.
WELNA: That's University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs. He says polls show Ventura's prospects are better now than when he beat Norm Coleman and a Democrat to win the governorship as an independent a decade ago.
Prof. JACOBS: 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.
WELNA: Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey agrees things have indeed changed with Ventura - but not for the better.
Mr. RON CAREY (Minnesota Republican Party): 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.
Mr. JESSE VENTURA (Former Independent Governor of Minnesota): Getting over a hangover? The only hangover they had was the fact that I beat their boy, Norm Coleman, and they suffered a four-year hangover from that.
WELNA: After months of refusing to speak with any news media, Jesse Ventura agreed on Sunday to meet me in a parking lot in suburban St. Paul. He still insists he won't announce whether he's running until next Tuesday, the deadline for filing in Minnesota. But when I tell him 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 which Ventura vehemently opposes.
Mr. VENTURA: That's the reason I run, not to sell books. I run because it angers me.
WELNA: And here's Ventura again, sounding as if he's already made up his mind.
Mr. VENTURA: And 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.
WELNA: It's a choice Minnesotans could well face come November. David Welna, NPR News.
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