WASHINGTON — Minnesota should be a slam-dunk for the Democrats as they look for places to gain Senate seats and a big enough majority to control the legislative agenda next year.
It's the land of Democratic icons such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone. A place where Democrat Barack Obama leads in two new polls by 17 percentage points and an overall average of 12 points. And a year when the Republican brand is, to put it charitably, damaged.
But there's a problem.
The Democratic candidate is comedian Al Franken, and he's had a rough start. Revelations have surfaced about his tax problems and about raunchy jokes on rape and on Internet porn for 12-year-olds. His moment of triumph seizing the state party convention's endorsement had to include an apology.
He still could defeat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman. But for now, he trails by an average of 7 percentage points.
On Monday, a one-time supporter filed to challenge Franken in September's Democratic primary. Priscilla Lord Faris, a lawyer from St. Paul and daughter of a former federal judge, said she liked Franken but was worried that he wouldn't be able to defeat Coleman.
Also on Monday, former Gov. Jesse Ventura, who was considering running as an independent, opted out.
Faris' challenge is a long shot, but another sign that at least some Democrats in the state are worried about the Senate race.
"There's no question that Franken is underperforming," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Minnesota's Carleton College. "He should be ahead, or at least tied. But he has not run a good campaign and he has significant baggage."
Franken, 57, was reared in Minnesota before he made his career as a comedian and writer on such programs as "Saturday Night Live." He recently returned to the state to run for the Senate, urging such things as universal health care and ending the Iraq war.
With his fame, he's raised more money than any other Democratic Senate challenger in the country, and coasted to winning the state party convention's endorsement.
But he's been hit by news stories about his past.
First came accounts of his failure to pay workers' compensation insurance in New York and that he was late paying income taxes in 17 states.
Then came news about an article he wrote for Playboy magazine in 2000 titled "Porn-O-Rama," in which he joked about his desire for oral sex and how his 12-year-old son used the Internet for a sixth-grade report on bestiality.
Finally came the news that he'd joked about a rape of CBS reporter Lesley Stahl during a "Saturday Night Live" writing session described in a 1995 article in New York Magazine.
Fellow Democrats were stunned.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said that when the Playboy article came to light congressional candidates faced the prospect of running on the ticket with someone "who has pornographic writings that are indefensible."
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he'd support Franken but that he didn't like the sexual comments. "I have to ask myself, can I explain it to my 11-year-old daughter? I'd have considerable difficulty," he told the Associated Press.
When Franken accepted the state convention endorsement, he apologized.
"It kills me that things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room and people in this state that they can't count on me to be a champion for women, a champion for ALL Minnesotans, in this campaign and in the Senate. I'm sorry for that. Because that's not who I am," he said.
Franken hopes he's getting past the rough patch.
"He had a lot of tough conversations with people worried about what it would mean for his candidacy. He took it on head-on," campaign spokesman Andy Barr said.
"The economy's in recession, we're losing jobs, gas is $4 a gallon, Minnesota's in the top 10 for sub-prime foreclosures and we've lost more than five dozen brave men and women in Iraq. Minnesotans want an election about that," he said.
Perhaps, but Barr noted that Coleman now faces questions about his rental of a basement apartment from a Republican fundraiser. Coleman denies any wrongdoing and calls his $600-a-month rent appropriate for the Washington market.
"They both have had rough patches," independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said. "But clearly, Franken has had the tougher time. ... I still think Coleman is one of the more vulnerable Republicans. But for the moment, the Republicans have a little breathing room."
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