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Minnesota race part of fight for Senate

WASHINGTON -- Huddled in the Ronald Reagan Republican Center near Capitol Hill, GOP staffers pore over Al Franken's three decades of work as a satirist and liberal author, searching for politically lethal material.

Meanwhile, just a few blocks south in a converted townhouse, Democratic strategists are trying to derail Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's re-election effort by depicting him as cozy with special interests.

Minnesota voters will decide who they elect to the Senate this fall, and both party's efforts - and those of outside groups -- to win the Minnesota race are indicative of its potential impact on future control of the Senate.

Democrats enter the 2008 election with narrow control of the Senate. Two independent senators typically vote with the 49 Democrats, giving them a one-vote majority. But in the Senate gathering 60 votes is key to advancing most legislation.

So as Coleman and Republicans try to regain Senate control, Democrats look to build on their slim majority.

"Minnesota's definitely part of the equation," Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based nonpartisan political newsletter, said of Democrats' goal of a filibuster-proof majority.

Coleman long has been considered among a handful of Republican senators expected to face tough re-election battles, given the national Democrat-friendly atmosphere and Minnesota's traditional "blue" voting record.

Coleman often admits as much, insisting he faces a difficult contest for a second six-year term. In 2002, he beat former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate after Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash late in the campaign.

"The reality is as a Republican it is an uphill battle," Coleman said, sitting in a high-back chair in his Senate office.

Coleman said he is ready to tell voters about specific efforts he has made to help them during his tenure, while his opponent cannot provide such examples. "That's his background," he said of Franken's past as comedian, not public servant.

Democratic operatives also are trying to make the campaign about Coleman's record. However, they want to convince voters that Coleman, a former Democrat, shifts his policy positions to align with the political winds and is too tight with corporate interests to protect the average Minnesotan's interest. They downplay polls showing Coleman leading Franken.

"Most people haven't started looking at the race yet," said Matt Miller, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "They probably don't know a lot about Al Franken yet and they don't know a lot of the things about Norm Coleman that they're going to know by the time they go into the voting booth in November."

Some Republicans thought Franken would be a dream opponent who brings to the race campaign inexperience and decades of bawdy comedic material the GOP could put before voters as proof he is unfit for the Senate.

They acknowledge Franken's background also has proven to be an asset for him in his first run for office. He has widespread name recognition and has proven able to raise funds nationally.

"But he is obviously an inexperienced candidate," said Rebecca Fisher of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP's campaign organization that is housed in the Reagan building.

Fisher said that early in the campaign Republicans questioned whether they could define Franken because he is so well known, but now believe they so far have been successful branding him as a "salacious and kind of out there comedian." Franken must continue to try to sell himself as a serious candidate while Republicans strategically dispense eyebrow-raising Franken comments and writings they say proves otherwise, she said.

Franken said he expects the GOP will selectively pull controversial remarks from his decades of material and use them to distract from issues important to voters.

"At a certain point," Franken said in an interview, "this is going to create a backlash against Republicans who clearly don't - they can't stand on Norm's record and they can't stand on their record. So they're going to be going after things that I wrote. That's all they got."

Republicans at the state and national level claim they have a lot of it and argue it is relevant as voters weigh their options.

"I think it defines him and I think that there will continue to be damaging information that will define him as a politician that is completely out of touch with Minnesota voters," Fisher said. "We've got years and years and years of Franken saying insensitive remarks."

The focus is on a Coleman-Franken contest, with Independence Party candidate Stephen Williams trailing far behind in campaign visibility.

But there is a wild card - Jesse Ventura.

Minnesota's former governor in recent weeks has hinted he might crash the two-way Senate race. If he runs, Ventura would attempt to capitalize on voters' frustrations with both Franken and Coleman.

Ventura's plans likely will not be known until Tuesday afternoon -- the deadline to file for office -- but the prospect of a Ventura candidacy intrigues Senate race observers.

"We just don't know how much of a factor he will be," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the independent, nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "If people are unsatisfied with the job that Norm Coleman is doing, they now have two options to vote for and I think that could be a problem for Franken."