Ciresi's candidacy makes Minnesota Democratic primary a two-horse race

Comedian-turned-liberal talk show host Al Franken has set up a substantial political operation and is expected to announce his candidacy for the seat of Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) tomorrow. Attorney Mike Ciresi's decision to enter the Democratic primary on Sunday means that operation will need to be well-oiled far in advance of the general election.

Comedian-turned-liberal talk show host Al Franken has set up a substantial political operation and is expected to announce his candidacy for the seat of Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) tomorrow. Attorney Mike Ciresi's decision to enter the Democratic primary on Sunday means that operation will need to be well-oiled far in advance of the general election.

The entrance of Ciresi, a wealthy repeat candidate who has the ability to self-fund, creates an early two-horse race for the Democratic nomination in Minnesota, with Ciresi and Franken head-and-shoulders above other prospective candidates in financial means and name recognition.

Ciresi announced he was forming an exploratory committee, but he talks about the race as an official candidate. He flirted with a bid for the open seat now occupied by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) last year and ran in the 2000 Democratic primary, won by Klobuchar's predecessor, Sen. Mark Dayton (D).

As a trial lawyer best known for a multi-billion dollar settlement with the tobacco industry, he spent almost $5 million of his own money and raised another $1 million in the 2000 primary, in which he took 22 percent of the vote.

He said he's not planning on self-funding this time and was forced into it by Dayton's high level of self-funding — Dayton spent about $12 million on the election — but he's not ruling it out and holds it as a trump card.

"We're not going to self-fund; we're going to raise funds," Ciresi said. "Mark was very well known with great ID, and he came out very early with ads. We had raised a lot of money, but we had to meet those ads."

Franken, meanwhile, raised more than $1 million for his Midwest Values political action committee last cycle, showing the fundraising prowess needed to run in one of the marquee races in the nation. Coleman, a freshman who narrowly won in 2002 after the plane-crash death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), is expected to draw one of the strongest challenges in the country.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak would mix things up should he decide to enter the race. But, at this point, he has all but ruled out a bid and said he would only enter under very specific circumstances. Other potential candidates include state Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, who is the subject of a drafting movement, and state Rep. Joe Atkins.

Unlike those candidates, the Ciresi-vs.-Franken matchup provides two candidates who have never held political office and could find their past occupations both a help and a hindrance in their campaigns. Ciresi has won millions representing victims in the courts but, as an attorney who has gotten rich off his trade, risks the "wealthy trial lawyer" label. Franken, as a former star of "Saturday Night Live," has high name ID but could run into trouble as something of a "celebrity candidate" (though Minnesota did elect professional wrestler Jesse Ventura as its governor).

Regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, their entrances 21 months before the general election sharply change the dynamics for other prospective candidates, said David Schultz, a political expert at Hamline University in St. Paul.

"What you have is probably the two best-financed candidates who have entered early and probably will scare off just about everybody else at this point," Schultz said. "I don't think people are going to be able to raise the kind of money that they would need to be able to match either Franken or Ciresi."

Ciresi and Franken have both been working on engendering support within the party and state, though Franken's efforts over the past year have given him a clear leg up, observers say. Franken has been very visible since moving back to Minnesota a year ago, drawing widespread acclaim for raising money and stumping for Democrats locally and nationally.

Ciresi bowed to Klobuchar in February 2006, deciding not to run and clearing the way for her to coast in the primary and eventually against former Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) in the general election. Now Ciresi says that, unlike in 2000, he will abide by the state party's endorsement, which is handed out several months before the September primary. That could help the party get its candidate early, as it did last year when Klobuchar faced nominal primary competition. Ciresi noted that he was second in the endorsing process in 2000 even though he said he wouldn't abide by it. He said he believes he has "a lot of good will within the state" Democratic party.

Though Ciresi's recent moves have helped him, Schultz estimated that Franken has more support from rank-and-file members of the party. As for the Minnesota congressional delegation, nobody is handing out support at this point, but each has some advantages.

Franken was deeply involved in Rep. Tim Walz's (D) upset of Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R) in November. Spokeswoman Meredith Salsbery said Franken was "a great friend of our 2006 campaign [and] spent a good deal of time in the district." Ciresi gave to Walz's campaign, but wasn't as involved.

Ciresi and Rep. Betty McCollum (D) know each other well and Ciresi lives in her St. Paul-based district.

Rep. Jim Oberstar (D), the senior Minnesota member whose early endorsement in January 2006 helped spur Klobuchar on to victory, doesn't know Franken or Ciresi as well as he did Klobuchar.

Freshman Rep. Keith Ellison (D), who won on the strength of the party endorsement, will echo that endorsement.

Ciresi has focused his comments early in his campaign on Coleman instead of Franken, saying Coleman is too attached to a Republican Party and a president that were "roundly rejected" last year. He also talks a lot about the middle class and his own track record.

Franken will announce his intentions during the last half hour of his last show on Air America radio tomorrow. It will be accompanied by a video announcement on his website. His PAC declined to comment on Ciresi in advance of the announcement.