When Al Franken launched his Democratic campaign to oust Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, few people in Minnesota gave him much of a chance.
Now, some two years later, and with just over a week before Election Day, the comedian and author is leading in some polls and could win a Senate race that has emerged as one of the closest – and most expensive – in the country.
Just a few months ago Coleman enjoyed double-digit leads in state-wide polls, and the first term Republican still has some $5 million on hand to spend on his re-election bid. But his connection to a now-unpopular President Bush, who Coleman campaigned vigorously for in 2004, is proving to be a liability, with state Democratic leaders – and his opponents – painting Coleman as a Bush loyalist.
Watch John Berman's report on the Minnesota Senate race, including interviews with the candidates, Wednesday on "Good Morning America."
In his first year in the Senate, Coleman, a former Democrat who co-chaired President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign in Minnesota, voted with President Bush 98 percent of the time, according to ratings by Congressional Quarterly. "His negative ratings are atrocious for an incumbent," says Lawrence Jacobs, director at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Jacobs says a souring economy is hurting GOP candidates nationally and that is rubbing off on Coleman.
"Minnesota Voters have real doubts about the direction of the country right now and they're taking it out on Republicans, and we're seeing that hurt Coleman," he says.
Further complicating the race is the recent addition of third-party candidate Dean Barkley, who announced he was running in July. Barkley, 58, first ran as an outsider for the U.S. House in 1992, then for Senate in 1994 and 1996. He also filled out the last two months of Sen. Paul Wellstone's term, after the two-term Democrat died in a plane crash 11 days before the 2002 election against Coleman.
(Former Vice President Walter Mondale filled the Democratic slot in the election, which Coleman eventually won.)
Barkley won the Independence Party primary in September and though he's late to the campaign, polls show him scoring surprisingly well with Minnesota voters. Political observers say Barkley is drawing voters from both parties, but Franken's campaign clearly sees an opening. "Minnesotans are holding Bush and Coleman responsible for failed economic policies that have hurt taxpayers and the middle class," says Colleen Murray, a spokeswoman for Franken's campaign. "There's a growing concern for change throughout the state."
A recent University of Wisconsin survey showed Franken ahead of Coleman 40 percent to 34 percent, his biggest lead of the race. Barkley was favored by 15 percent of those surveyed. Nearly 8 percent were undecided. The poll was conducted Oct. 19-22 and has a 4 point error margin.
Meantime, an Allstate/National Journal poll of 402 registered voters, conducted Oct. 16-20, shows Franken with 36 percent, Coleman with 35 percent and Barkley, with 18 percent. The survey has a 5-point error margin. Both Franken and Coleman have seen their poll numbers fluctuate between the mid-30s and low 40s.
The race in Minnesota is among the most expensive of the country's 35 Senate races this year. Coleman and Franken have so far raised more than $32 million combined, and experts predict that much also could be spent by outside groups trying to influence the election. Franken raised $15.5 million through the end of September, according to recent Federal Election Commission filings. He spent more than $13 million, leaving him with $2.7 million. Coleman had raised $11.5 million, spending $8.3 million.
Franken raised $1.89 million in the third quarter and leads all candidates across the country; Coleman raised $1.7 million in the third quarter and is fourth in the nation in fund raising among all Senate candidates this year.
Coleman spokesman Luke Friedrich says Franken's fundraising prowess is not likely to affect voters come Election Day.
"If you look at what voters in the state want, it's someone who is a proven, experienced leader on important issues and Norm Coleman is that guy," Friedrich says. The fundraising totals dwarf previous Senate races in Minnesota. Democrat Amy Klobuchar spent about $9 million to defeat Mark Kennedy in 2006. The Republican spent $9.7 million in his failed bid to go from the House to the Senate. In 2002, Coleman spent $10 million in his election win over Walter Mondale.
Minnesota's high profile senate race is also attracting national party figures.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who has campaigned with Franken and appears in one of his latest ads, stumped with the candidate last week. Clinton urged a crowd of about 2,000 at the University of Minnesota to elect Democrats, including Al Franken, to the Senate in order to help the party achieve the 60 seats it needs to overcome a Republican filibuster.
"You have friends who've decided to vote for Obama/Biden but haven't yet decided who to vote for in the Senate race," Clinton said. "How are they going to feel if they vote for Barack Obama but don't get that majority we need in the Senate?"
Last Thursday, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani visited Minnesota. With Coleman standing by his side, Giuliani told a Rochester, Minn., crowd that the United States faces difficult times and it can't afford someone "who looks to the United States Senate as an entry level job."
"There are enough comics in Washington," he said. "They don't need another."
The three Minnesota Senate candidates meet for their final debate on Sunday, just two days before the Nov. 4 election.