Amid growing signs he was failing to win over party activists, Mike Ciresi announced Monday that he was dropping out of the race for U.S. Senate, saying he wanted to avoid a divisive fight for the DFL Party’s endorsement.

His decision leaves political satirist and commentator Al Franken and University of St. Thomas Prof. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer as the leading DFL candidates seeking to challenge Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

“Continuing the endorsement race would only lead to an unnecessary floor fight,” Ciresi said in a statement. “It is time to step aside.”

Besides failing to garner enough support from activists, Ciresi trailed Franken in campaign contributions by a nearly 4-to-1 ratio.
Ciresi had counted on support from activists to overcome Franken’s fundraising advantage.

But the tide recently turned against him. Interviews with party delegates and reports on results from district conventions suggest Ciresi was running behind Franken and Nelson-Pallmeyer in the race for DFL endorsement, which will occur at the state party convention June 6-8 in Rochester.

Sought broader appeal

At the Senate District 35 convention in Savage on Saturday, Ciresi gave a rousing speech but also expressed frustration with the party’s endorsement process.

He reminded delegates that they would be choosing a candidate not just for DFL activists, but for independents and moderate Republicans “who want to vote for someone other than Norm Coleman.”

In an interview immediately after the speech, Ciresi said the process of selecting the DFL candidate was exclusionary and “not really democratic.”

“It’s a broader interest that’s at stake,” he said. “We need to appeal to a broad cross-section [of voters].” He said Franken had good name recognition but “I’m the most electable candidate. Norm Coleman will be the issue if I run, not Al Franken.”

A multimillionaire, Ciresi built a reputation as a trial lawyer; he represented the state in litigation against the tobacco industry that resulted in a $6.1 billion settlement. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2000, losing the DFL nomination to Mark Dayton, who won the general election.

Rival saw gains

A strong public signal of Ciresi’s slippage emerged Friday, when Nelson-Pallmeyer’s campaign e-mailed a page from its website that proclaimed: “This is now a two-person race!!!”

It went on to say: “A couple of months ago Jack was still polling third, but now ... we are proud to say we have surpassed Mike Ciresi in delegate support!” It said that at a recent party convention in Duluth, Nelson-Pallmeyer and Franken each won 10 delegates while Ciresi got only two.

The Franken campaign declined to comment Monday on Ciresi’s withdrawal, saying Franken wanted to speak with Ciresi first before making a statement.

Nelson-Pallmeyer said he believes his campaign is more in tune with Ciresi supporters on the Iraq war and health coverage than is Franken’s.

“I expect many of them will come over my way,” Nelson-Pallmeyer said.

Coleman issued a statement saying, in part, “Mike Ciresi should be applauded for his willingness to get into the arena and his desire to serve.”

Ciresi was not commenting Monday beyond the statement he issued announcing his withdrawal, said his spokeswoman, Leslie Sandberg.

In an effort to compensate for Franken’s fundraising edge, Ciresi, with an estimated worth of more than $26 million, last month lent his campaign $2 million. It was in addition to a $528,088 contribution he made last year, which was more than a quarter of the money he raised in 2007. Ciresi put nearly $5 million of his own money into his U.S. Senate bid in 2000.

Ciresi had hoped the loan of last month would “build on the momentum” he said was demonstrated in a Rasmussen Reports poll, taken Feb. 16, that showed Coleman leading him by only 47 to 45 percent. The same poll showed Franken leading Coleman 49 to 46 percent.

But the loan also raised questions about whether Ciresi had the financial help to mount the kind of expensive campaign needed to defeat Coleman.

“I think the National Republican Committee will spend gazillions to hold onto that seat, and I think Al is best positioned to raise enough money to win,” said Larry E. Smith, a Vietnam vet and nurse at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Minneapolis who was a delegate at the Senate District 35 convention in Savage.

Convention signals?

Over the past couple of weekends, as DFLers gathered around the state to elect delegates to the party’s state convention, the often lukewarm support for Ciresi — compared with enthusiastic backing for Nelson-Pallmeyer, widely considered the third candidate in the race — surprised observers who expected a closer contest between the trial lawyer and Franken.

In south Minneapolis earlier this month at the Senate District 60 convention, the final delegate count showed  Franken, with 18; Nelson-Pallmeyer, with 6, and Ciresi, with 2.

Delegates to the local conventions often spoke with admiration about Ciresi’s track record  battling the tobacco industry and other special interests.

“I think Al is terrific — I’d vote for him in a heartbeat — but Mike would be most effective for Minnesota and the country,” said Richard Hardin of New Brighton at the Senate District 50 convention Saturday at Columbia Heights High School. “Al’s got star power, and Mike’s got the ability to get it done.”

Also in the DFL race are Darryl Stanton and Dick Franson.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210