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DFL State Convention: All eyes will be on Franken

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Al Franken's political career depends on how he answers fellow Democrats' questions today.

"What he says is going to be important," Detroit Lakes Mayor Larry Buboltz, an alternate delegate to his party's state convention, said in a very much understated comment.

Franken wants Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Laborites' endorsement today to face Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman in the Nov. 4 election. But controversy about comedy skits for "Saturday Night Live" surrounds the long-time comedian, satirist and writer.

Buboltz predicted Franken today "will approach it directly."

The talk of DFLers gathering Friday to open their three-day state convention was about Franken and his problems with past comments and writing that many of them consider "totally inappropriate," as U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.

Today's job of 1,388 DFL delegates will be to endorse a Senate candidate. It comes amid a Franken controversy dating back to the days when he was a "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer. Republicans and many Democrats see some of his sexually oriented writing as disturbing and others complain that he failed to pay taxes in some states where he spoke for pay (although he did overpay in two states, including Minnesota).

"I think it is something he's going to have to deal with," said Mark Sinner of Moorhead, an alternate delegate who supports Franken but said it is important to discuss the issue that concerns many delegates.

In recent months, it appeared Franken gained overwhelming support of convention delegates. However, the controversy about his writing, especially, influenced many delegates to take a second look at his candidacy. The controversy overtook the convention, and many of the delegates say they will decide on their candidate only after he talks to those gathered at Mayo Civic Center today.

"It's going to be interesting," said Mike Kovacovich, a Franken convention delegate from Hubbard County.

Rumors spread that Mike Ciresi, who dropped out of the race in March citing lack of support, would challenge Franken in a primary election. On Friday, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer worked the convention floor in his effort to become the endorsee.

"We're doing great. We're poised to win," Nelson-Pallmeyer said in between conversations with delegates. "It's going to be very close."

Nelson-Pallmeyer had the support of first-time delegate Sherry Kloha of Bemidji.

"I just think he's the better candidate," she said. "He's someone you can really be proud of."

Perennial candidate Dick Franson and long-shot candidate Darryl Stanton also are in the race, but apparently have few delegates' support.

Franken and Nelson-Pallmeyer talked to delegates on the convention floor for much of Friday afternoon. But how Franken deals with his issues today will be the most important time he spends.

Hubert "Buck" Humphrey, grandson of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, said his concern is that voters need to look at why Coleman should be voted out of office, not listening to a list of problems the Democratic candidate faces.

Buboltz said he expects Republicans to have "a news story a week" ready to fight Franken.

The state Republican chairman did what he could to fan the flames Friday after Franken said he regretted some of his work.

"For over 30 years, Al Franken has joked about rape and pornography, made fun of people's appearances and viciously insulted those with whom he disagreed," Chairman Ron Carey said. "Today, after over 30 years of venom, his political 'deathbed' conversion of apologizing is as believable as his story that his accountant is to blame for his failure to pay taxes in 17 states for the past five years."

Several DFL Congress members and state legislators have criticized Franken in recent days, saying his television and book work at times has been offensive, especially to women.

Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls, said the Democratic candidate needs to focus on the issues, and Franken may not be able to do that, given his problems.

"I don't like politics of theater," Wollschlager said. "I want politics of meaning."

And, she asked, "what if (former Gov.) Jesse Ventura gets into the race? Now, that would be theater."

Wollschlager said she wants Franken "to know I'm not on his side." Many of Wollschlager's female House colleagues sent Franken a similar message.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., said she has not endorsed a Senate candidate, but in talking to reporters after she spoke to the convention - when she did not mention Franken and barely talked about Coleman - she made it clear she is not happy with Franken's writing.

Franken must address the issue up front today, she said.

The first-term senator said that she complained directly to Franken and he "understands that his writing has offended people."

Nineteen-year-old Sophie Netland of Duluth, attending her first state convention, was ready to back Franken. Netland, whose father is a union leader, said she likes Franken's support of labor issues, his ability to raise money needed to win a Senate race and his visibility.

Netland shrugged off the Franken controversies of late.

"He's a comedian and that's what comedians do," she said.

The Senate contest divided Sam and Sandra Nelson of Spicer. The Nelsons were Ciresi supporters but then split over the remaining candidates. Sam Nelson is backing Franken, but his wife likes Nelson-Pallmeyer.

"I think he's a man of great integrity," Sandra Nelson said of the soft-spoken college professor.

Sandra Nelson said she is not concerned that Nelson-Pallmeyer may not be a household name around Minnesota.

"Paul Wellstone wasn't when he started, either," she said of the late Democratic U.S. senator.

Delegate David Stowman of Detroit Lakes, who started the year supporting Ciresi, said he had not heard that the Twin Cities lawyer is talking about running in a primary if Franken wins today's endorsement.

Stowman said what was funny 10 years ago is not funny any more.

Franken's tax woes were honest mistakes, the Detroit Lakes attorney added. He is not "a tax accountant," Stowman said.

Criticism over Franken's work as an entertainer doesn't bother Elton Jones.

"It's the past," said Jones, who was wearing a Franken campaign shirt. "He was writing for a different audience."

Jones, a convention delegate from Erskine, said Franken has campaigned in his area of northwestern Minnesota.

"I think his chances are good" to be endorsed, Jones said, adding that Franken will be a good general election candidate. "The main thing is to get rid of Norm Coleman."

Scott Wente and Don Davis work for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.