‘Stuart Saves His Party’? Franken’s unorthodox campaign put to the test

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Al Franken have known each other for years, but when Franken started making noise about a Senate bid from Minnesota, his friend was not his ally.

After considering whether to back Franken or 2000 Senate candidate Mike Ciresi, Schumer, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, ultimately made Minnesota the lone major Democratic contest from which he has almost completely abstained.

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Now, with Ciresi out of the race, Schumer’s friend has become his partner in combat for what is expected to be one of the most colorful races in the country against Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

Only professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer stands in Franken’s way during June’s endorsing convention, and Franken’s campaign is confident it has convinced voters that he’s ready for the main event.

In a recent interview, Schumer acknowledged his early concerns that Franken was too far left for Minnesota and that the things the former “Saturday Night Live” star has said would come back to haunt him.

Schumer now says he’s pleased with Franken, and Franken said Schumer’s approval serves as validation.

“I think a lot of people, at the beginning of this over a year ago, felt the jury was out over whether I’d be a serious candidate,” Franken said in an interview with The Hill on Friday. “I think the jury’s come in, and the foreman of the jury has announced that I’m serious.”

Franken then added with a laugh: “Has the jury reached a verdict? We have: He’s serious,” before mumbling aloud to simulate courtroom chatter.

The jokes are more understated these days compared to Franken’s entertainment years, and the word “serious” has been both message and motif for his campaign.

Both Franken and campaign manager Andy Barr utter it frequently while making their case, and the campaign actually keeps a file of the myriad examples of it being used in puns to describe Franken’s candidacy.

Part of being taken seriously, Barr said, is the campaign’s fundraising: “Nothing says more clearly that Al is serious about this than building a campaign to match.”

In that regard, the campaign has proven successful, but with a big caveat.

Franken’s campaign has displayed tremendous ability to both raise and spend money, burning about 60 percent of its $9.2 million raised so far.

Its 2007 fourth-quarter financial report showed about $700,000 spent on expanding its donor base, including $500,000 for mailings, more than $100,000 for telemarketing and another $70,000 for fundraising consulting.

Franken’s $4 million spent in 2007 far outpaced any other current Senate candidate except Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and his burn rate climbed even higher in the first three months of 2008.

Barr attributes those costs to the campaign’s efforts to build a national fundraising base, which now features 95,000 members — nearly 80,000 of whom come from outside Minnesota.

Another strategic decision the campaign has made is to largely ignore Republicans when they bring up vulgar or divisive comments from Franken’s past. Working as a comedian, author and liberal talk radio host, Franken has given the GOP plenty of material.

Recently, Republicans have tried to register a “macaca” moment by distributing a YouTube video of Franken reading a sexually graphic passage from one of his books while speaking in a mock-Asian accent.

Franken said that if he responded to every attack, “that’s all I’d do.”

“Sometimes I’d like to, because it’s an actual lie, but that’s not what the campaign’s about,” Franken said, before ticking off a list of issues, including healthcare and the economy.

Coleman has signaled a shift in recent weeks by taking direct aim at Franken, especially during the official launching of Coleman’s reelection campaign.

Coleman spokesman Tom Erickson said Franken has avoided answering the tough questions about his past statements but can’t hide forever.

“Eventually, even Al Franken will have to justify his jokes about rape and abortion, his attacks on religion, and his angry attacks on those who disagree with him,” Erickson said.

Erickson also suggested Franken’s heavy campaign spending is indicative of how he would legislate.

One area where the GOP has found some traction is with Franken’s failure to pay $25,000 in workers’ compensation for several years on his personal corporation.

After initially suggesting New York’s state government might have incorrectly tabulated the sum, Franken’s campaign admitted Friday that the blame lies with its candidate.

Republicans have accused Franken of ignoring the notices being sent to his address in New York and skipping out on his obligations.

Franken’s campaign pointed out that several other Minnesota political figures over the years have also failed to pay for workers’ compensation, including Nelson-Pallmeyer and Coleman’s predecessor, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D).

Franken is expected to win at the endorsing convention, which serves as a de facto primary in Minnesota. But Nelson-Pallmeyer has run an impressive grassroots campaign.

Nelson-Pallmeyer said he is “very confident” that the convention will go to multiple votes.

“We’re gaining lots of ground and have been doing so over the last couple months,” he said. “The pace of that game is accelerating, and we expect this will be a very competitive convention.”