Funny Man Franken Gets Serious About Senate Run

February 14, 2007— -- First came Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Now it could be Al Franken's turn.

Minnesotans, who elected former pro wrestler Ventura to serve as their governor in 1999, may have another unorthodox candidate asking for their vote this year. Comedian and talk-show host Al Franken appears poised to launch a run for the state's Senate seat, currently held by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

On Jan. 29, Franken told his radio audience that he would leave his self-titled show on Feb. 14, paving the way for a possible campaign.

Franken announced on air, "I'm definitely giving [a Senate run] serious consideration." He then said if he makes his decision by the time his final radio show airs, he would announce the decision on Valentine's Day.

Where Ventura was better known for body slams and head locks before taking the helm of state government in a tumultuous independent term, Franken has long been a figure in the political world.

Franken, a former "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer, has been the signature voice of the liberal Air America radio network since its inception in 2004 and formed the Midwest Values Political Action Committee, of which Andy Barr is the political director.

Barr does not deny that Franken may be about to launch a Senate bid.

"He has made no secret of the fact that he's seriously considering getting into the race," says Barr. "He's been talking to everyone you can imagine, talking to people about their experiences, seeking advice from folks who have gone through the process."

While Franken lays the groundwork for a campaign, others are already jumping in the race for one of the two Senate seats in the land of 10,000 lakes.

On Feb. 11, Minnesota Democrat and wealthy trial lawyer Mike Ciresi announced he is forming an exploratory committee for a second Senate bid. Ciresi won 22 percent of the primary vote against eventual general election winner and now former Sen. Mark Dayton.

Republicans are also taking early aim at a Franken bid.

Ron Carey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, recently issued a statement expressing confidence that the state "will reject Franken's divisive, scorched earth attacks," going on to declare, "Al Franken fundamentally lacks the leadership qualities Minnesotans are looking for."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee also released a collection of quotes that the comedian would probably rather forget, including a comment made to Time magazine in 2003 in which Franken stated he was not tempted to run for office, reasoning, "First of all, if I took one vote away from a serious candidate, it would be a sin."

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Policy and Governance at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, acknowledges that Republicans want to damage Franken's credibility early in the electoral process.

"The Republicans don't want to take chances with him -- they want to finish him off now. If they can define Franken now the way that John Kerry was defined early in the presidential race, then that will be good for the Republicans. But they don't want to let Franken redefine himself. And that's what he'll try to do -- redefine himself."

Barr agrees that it will be a challenge for Franken to get to the voters to take him seriously, but he is confident that Franken is up to the task.

"That's one of the challenges -- he's got to show people that he's serious about serving the people of Minnesota," Barr told ABC News.

Barr, sounding like an aspiring campaign manager, continued to explain, "People are used to turning to him as a leader in the progressive community. He brings a fresh perspective to the problems the country faces. There's a hunger for something different."

But will voters -- even ones who have shown a penchant for outsiders in the past -- elect a former "Saturday Night Live" comedian?

"His main problem is his occupation. He's got to gain credibility," says Jacobs. "The fact that he's a comedian might hurt him. This is not a comic period in American history. So whether or not he can build that bond of trust with the people, that's a real question."

With every political candidate whose background is in comedy or wrestling or acting, the advantages of being a known quantity with voters also bring with them some disadvantages, too.

"He has 100 percent name recognition -- that's a great advantage," Jacobs says. "But his background is a big disadvantage -- the 'take-me-seriously' issue is hard because people are trained to think of him as a comedian. And he's been outlandish."

Barr is confident that Franken has already overcome this problem with his years as a talk-show host and political author.

"People are used to turning to him as a leader in the progressive community. That's an advantage," says Barr.

But many see an uphill battle in the much-sought-after role as a challenger to Coleman, who is widely seen as vulnerable to a strong opponent.

"He's got a reasonable chance to win the Democratic endorsement but he might not win the primary -- that's uncertain," Jacobs says. "In Minnesota they take policy-making very seriously. You can't win if you're seen as not being serious about policy issues."