WASHINGTON - Al Franken glided through the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, "on message" and as optimistic as any of the Senate's most seasoned members.
"Cautiously optimistic," the comedian-turned-candidate told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who stopped to inquire about his chances in the Minnesota recount battle with Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.
Then, with a guffaw, he echoed a reporter's wiseacre remark. "Yes, and cautiously on message."
With the recount getting underway in Minnesota, Franken's appearance on Capitol Hill was fraught with political sensitivities, coming against the backdrop of the Coleman camp's criticism that the trip was "highly presumptuous."
Coleman, who is also in Washington, remained out of the limelight during Franken's visit. Emerging from a Republican caucus meeting on Tuesday -- hours before Franken's arrival for a Washington fundraiser -- Coleman stayed on message as well:
"I'm just doing my job," he said, declining further comment.
After conferring for 20 minutes Wednesday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Franken announced to a gathering press corps that he had another important meeting. If they wanted to talk to him, they'd have to walk and talk.
So a gaggle of reporters and cameramen swarmed around the would-be senator, hanging on every word, much as if he were the majority leader, who stayed inside his office.
"It was just to basically fill them in on where we are in Minnesota. ... what the progress of the mechanics of the recount is," Franken said about his strategy session with Reid and several other Democrats, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
At one point, Franken tried to warn a cameraman who backed into a wall ("Watch Out! Are you OK?") and then parried a question about whether he was laying claim to a Senate seat.
"Right now it's in a recount," Franken said, heading for a Senate elevator. "So no one has a claim on the seat. The voters have a claim on the seat.
"Candidates will not decide this," Franken said. "The voters will decide it. That's the beauty of it."
A press aide for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) tried to keep reporters out of the elevator going to the Capitol basement, where underground trams convey Senate workers to and from their office buildings. The reporters jammed in the elevator anyway.
The questions segued into a discussion about whether the recount will be done by Christmas or Hanukkah. "I'd really love to be able to roll up my sleeves and get working on all the different problems that are facing the country," he said. "I'd be eager to be rolling up my sleeves and getting to work."
Franken also dismissed the notion, suggested by Minnesota GOP Chairman Ron Carey, that Senate Democratic leaders might consider intervening in the recount under the constitutional powers of Congress to judge the elections and qualifications of its members.
On that point, Franken got some backup from Klobuchar. Speaking Tuesday, she said it is "premature" to talk about Senate intervention. "Right now the recount is going," she said. "The key thing is to let the votes be counted. That's what everyone wants."
Emerging from the tram in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Franken said he was meeting with people at the Campaign Committee "who are experts at setting up an office."
Franken's aides in Minnesota said his trip is simply a matter of due diligence. "If he wins this election, he wants to hit the ground running on Day 1," said his spokeswoman, Colleen Murray. "That's what the people of Minnesota deserve."
Reid, in a statement shortly after meeting with Franken, also stuck to the theme of hitting the ground running. "There is no time to waste, and we have to make sure each of our new senators and potential new senators is prepared," he said.
But, as advertised, Franken skipped an orientation session for new senators, as well as a photo opportunity for freshman Democratic senators earlier in the week.
Instead he attended an event Tuesday night to raise funds for the recount. "I think Senator Coleman has been raising money," he noted. "These recounts unfortunately do require a lot of field organization, and already we're in court.... We anticipate there will be more litigation."
With that, Franken headed for another elevator, screened by the Campaign Committee aide.
"That's all guys," said the aide.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753