Franken takes Senate campaign to Iron Range

In some respects, being a standup politician is no different than being a standup comedian -- you're on the road playing in a lot of small-town halls.

In some respects, being a standup politician is no different than being a standup comedian -- you're on the road playing in a lot of small-town halls.

Al Franken, the satirist and former "Saturday Night Live" comedian, plans to play the circuit for the next 21 months -- asking Minnesotans to elect him as the state's next U.S. senator.

"I'm having a ball, but it's two days old," Franken said Friday evening in a cell phone interview with the Bemidji Pioneer, somewhere between Nashwauk on the Iron Range and Duluth. "I'm really having a good time."

It took three cell phone calls to conduct an interview, as Franken made his way south through the trees from Nashwauk, where he met with labor at AFSCME Council 65 union offices, to Duluth for a reception at the Duluth Labor Temple's Wellstone Hall.

Franken left his job Wednesday as radio talk show host on the liberal Air America network and announced his Democratic bid for U.S. Senate in 2008, hoping to unseat U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.


Long-time satirist and recent author of several books critical of conservative politics, Franken faces an uphill battle, possessing a well-known name and carrying a lot of baggage the GOP will no doubt use against him.

But Franken says he's deadly serious, and plans to travel the state over the next 21 months to learn the issues and meet the folks.

"Obviously, for the last three years I've been doing a national radio show, I'm running for a federal office, and I'm very familiar with federal issues," Franken said. "I got in this 21 months before the election because I want to be traveling the state and finding out and talking to people about these issues.

"I have a lot to learn from the people of Minnesota, and that's what I'm doing," said the Minnesota native who moved back to the state more than a year ago after forging a career in New York.

The first day out, Thursday, Franken pushed universal health care in Minneapolis, which he says must start with providing health insurance to all children. He also talks a lot about Minnesota's potential role in the national renewable energy picture.

But he admits that one of the top policy issues in Americans' -- and Minnesotans' -- minds is Iraq, and is a position where he and Coleman differ but not diametrically.

Iraq is the most important federal issue, says Franken, "and I dare say that I'm more familiar with that than the senator."

Franken, who has made four trips to Iraq as part of USO shows, doesn't disagree with Coleman over sending more troops to the Anbar peninsula to fight terrorism, but questions Coleman's apparent hypocrisy over "surging" more troops to Baghdad.


"Coleman says he's against the surge because he's against sending 17,500 American troops into the 'sectarian crosshairs,'" Franken said. "But what he doesn't mention is that there are already 24,000 Americans in Baghdad, in the sectarian crosshairs."

Franken would redeploy U.S. troops out of Baghdad, sending them elsewhere, especially to Afghanistan where a major opposition push is expected this spring.

"If there's sectarian violence like that, civil war, the Iraqi army and security forces should be handling that," he said, adding that it remains unknown if the Iraqis are capable of doing that. "We need to find out, don't we?"

Franken said that on one of his last visits to Iraq, an Egyptian-American interpreter who spent 2½ years in Iraq told him that "we really have to force them to do this themselves."

Of Coleman, Franken says "if you're not willing to put the 17,500 in the sectarian crosshairs, I'm not sure why you'd be willing to keep 24,000 in the same crosshairs. I think we should redeploy to Afghanistan, where we are in danger of failing, we definitely should be in Anbar, deploy some to Kuwait and Qatar, but we've got to put pressure on the Maliki government to deal with the Sunnis on the oil and reconciliation."

He would include a regional conference in the mix, including Iran and Syria, and suggested perhaps a "soft partition" may be an answer with a loose Iraqi central government and separately functioning Kurd, Sunni and Shiite sectors.

Franken could be labeled the DFL frontrunner for an election that is nearly two years away. But first he'll have to win the support of fellow Democrats in order to face Coleman. In the wings is Twin Cities attorney Mike Ciresi, who earlier in the week announced an exploratory campaign for the Senate post.

Ciresi didn't get the DFL endorsement in 2000, when he ran for Senate, and took the endorsement to the primary election but lost to DFLer Mark Dayton, who eventually won the seat.


"Any of us who run in this race on the Democratic side are really going to be talking about our own vision, what we want to do when we get to the Senate," Franken said, "and comparing that to Norm's record and what he seems to want to do."

As the campaign unfolds, "I'll be talking more about Norm, but for now I want to be talking about the kinds of things I want to do."

That includes universal health care, and "Apollo project" for renewable energy, and promoting embryonic stem cell research at the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic.

"The president in his State of the Union addresses talks about energy independence, but every year we become more dependent," Franken said. Minnesota could lead in biofuels, cellulosic and corn ethanol and conservation, all "win, win, win, win," he says.

The St. Paul Ford plant slated for closure could instead manufacture wind turbines for use in western Minnesota, he adds.

Coleman was asked about his views on Franken during a telephone news conference Thursday with Minnesota reporters.

"It's much too early to get involved in the political cross fires," Coleman said. "I'm going to focus on my job, that's what I think my constituents expect me to do. When I talk to constituents the last thing they want is for campaigns to start right now."

A reporter asked if the GOP senator stood by remarks made in recent fund-raising letters, characterizing Franken with "there's nothing funny about his venomous liberal radio show, his high-powered and deep pocket Hollywood friends, his national network of Bush haters with a magnitude of personal wealth."


But Coleman shied away. "Again, I'm not going to, I'm not getting engaged in any political ... I'm doing the job I'm elected to do, I think that's what folks want me to do."

Coleman says he's encouraged, with a record that includes 17 years in the Minnesota Attorney General's Office, eight years as mayor of St. Paul where he "led the revitalization of the city" and four years in the U.S. Senate as "a champion on renewable fuels and as champion on rural health care, the No. 3 person on foreign relations in the United States Senate."

As chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Coleman said he helped return about $11 billion to the U.S. Treasury "because of the work we've done to deal with fraud, abuse and corruption."

Says Coleman: "I think people know me."

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