Economy Shapes Senate Contest in Minnesota
By SUSAN SAULNY
Published: October 25, 2008
RED WING, Minn. — Senator Norm Coleman kicked off the final stretch of his re-election campaign on Main Street in this old railroad town about two weeks ago with a new theme: The Hope Express.
But the express had not even left its first stop when it hit a bump in the road in the form of tough questions from a crowd of Coleman supporters gathered in a hotel dining room.
Norman Sampson, a retired banker, asked why Mr. Coleman and his peers had not “blown the whistle” on the bad lending practices that led to the recent financial meltdown on Wall Street because, he said, “everyone knew what was going on.”
On the contrary, insisted Mr. Coleman, a first-term Republican.
“This one we didn’t see,” he said. “Who could imagine that a mortgage on a house in Red Wing, Minn., would be tied into and have an impact on the collapse of banks in London?”
Mr. Sampson, a fellow Republican, shot back, “A lot of us did.”
There is no issue on the campaign trail more vexing for Mr. Coleman, 59, than the financial crisis and the unpopular Congressional bailout package that he supported.
Economic turmoil is working against Republicans all across the country, but it has drowned out almost every other issue here in Minnesota, a state that could help determine whether the Democrats gain a 60-seat majority in the Senate.
For months, Mr. Coleman had been leading his Democratic opponent, the entertainer Al Franken, 57, whose campaign seemed doomed earlier this year. But an abrupt change happened over the past month as the financial crisis has taken root.
Mr. Franken, best known as a performer on “Saturday Night Live” and as a radio host, has pushed forward in several polls. And the race is now considered a tossup.
“Franken has clearly been propelled by the sense of almost panic by Minnesota voters about what’s going on nationally and here at home with the economy, and also globally with the two wars,” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “That’s the main focus that’s helped Franken defy his near-death experience.”
The spring was not a good time for Mr. Franken. His campaign suffered from a barrage of troubling revelations about his personal finances and the repeated airing of some of his wilder performances and statements from his entertaining days.
But now, in addition to reaping some benefit from voter anxiety about the economy, he is also profiting from the statewide popularity of Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president. In Minnesota, Mr. Obama was leading Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, by 51 percent to 40 percent as of mid-October, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
“I come to you in challenging times,” Mr. Coleman told the supporters here in Red Wing. “I need your help. I need your hope. I need your prayers.”
But what the crowd gave him, at least that night, were more hard questions.
About an hour into the session, an aide announced that it was time to wrap up. Mr. Sampson, the questioner, said he was “not convinced” by Mr. Coleman’s answers, even though he is a supporter. “I think he needs to be challenged and know that we’re not happy with what’s been going on in Congress,” he said.
Mr. Coleman had succeeded in earlier months in trying to make this election about whether Mr. Franken was a true Minnesotan, or just a celebrity flying in for a new part.
(Coincidentally, both candidates were born in New York. Mr. Franken moved with his family to Albert Lea, Minn., in his preschool years and left as a student bound for Harvard. He moved back three decades later. Mr. Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul, settled in Minnesota after graduating from the University of Iowa Law School, and took a job as a prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office.)
“Franken was the question in the first part,” said Mr. Jacobs, who helped conduct and analyzed the polling data. “Now the campaign is shifting back to a referendum on the incumbent and whether he should be held responsible for what happened over the last six years. And that’s a very hard question for Norm Coleman to win.”
According to two polls by the Humphrey Institute and Minnesota Public Radio News, Mr. Coleman’s nine-point lead over Mr. Franken before Oct. 2 disappeared after that date, which coincided with the news of the financial crisis and bailout, and the vice-presidential debate. After Oct. 2, Mr. Franken’s support among likely voters stood at 41 percent, up from 31 percent. Mr. Coleman’s support dropped to 37 percent from 40 percent.
A third-party candidate, Dean Barkley, 58, an independent, kept steady at 14 percent.
Also, the latter poll found that 87 percent of Minnesotans sampled thought “the country is off on the wrong track,” up from 80 percent earlier in the fall. Among the growing number of voters concluding that the country is off track, Mr. Franken’s advantage over Mr. Coleman widened to 13 points from 4. Both polls have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.
Undeterred, Mr. Coleman says he is still in this race to win. He is visiting towns and shaking hands at a feverish pace with more of a positive attitude in contrast to some of his earlier messages — particularly his own negative television advertisements, which, in a rare turn, he pulled from the air earlier this month.
“We can get our way out of this,” Mr. Coleman said of the bad economy at an appearance in Red Wing. “We can move forward.”
Republican Party officials said their candidates were suffering all over because of the amount of blame being thrown their way for the souring economy and because of President Bush’s unpopularity.
“In a normal year, I think Norm Coleman would beat Al Franken by 20 points,” said Senator John Ensign of Nevada, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “But it’s just a very tough climate for Republicans everywhere right now. Norm’s a great senator. He’s done a great job representing that state. That’s why he would normally be re-elected easily.
“This race is going to come down to who does the best in the last 12 days. When you have a dead-even race, it really is a question of who finishes the strongest.”
As for Mr. Franken’s strategy for the rest of the race, nothing is changing, he said after a news conference at small mountaineering shop in Duluth where he talked about saving jobs and doing away with tax cuts for the rich. “We’re going to be going as much as I can around the state talking to folks,” he said. “It seems to have worked pretty well so far.”
Anyone who expected to see a jokester on the campaign trail must be disappointed. Mr. Franken is a student of policy and delivers his message with a sense of serious urgency and a dash of outrage on behalf of his target audience — middle-class families.
“It’s been quite a roller-coaster ride,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “But at the end of the day we’re feeling quite good.”
It is still unclear what role Mr. Barkley’s candidacy could have on election day. A campaign manager for former Gov. Jesse Ventura who briefly filled the seat left vacant when Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash in 2002, he has come to tangle with Mr. Coleman in recent weeks, forcing Mr. Coleman to fight back and take on both of his opponents at once.
“I’m honored that I’m finally getting attacked,” Mr. Barkley said during a recent debate. “I wondered when I would. Thank you, Norm.”