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Al Franken did Tuesday what campaign playbooks recommend when there's damaging news to be told. The U.S. Senate candidate himself broke the story that he owed at least 17 states some $70,000 in taxes, interest and penalties. He said he overpaid taxes by a similar amount in Minnesota and New York between 2003 and 2007.
The news didn't come as a total surprise -- which suggests that DFLer Franken looked rather late to the playbooks for guidance. For more than a month, he'd been dealing with GOP reports of irregularities in his business finances. It was past time to get in front of that story and attempt to wrestle it into oblivion. Whether Franken's disclosure will have that effect is not at all clear.
The revelation was not the confession of a tax cheat -- GOP spinners' best attempts to suggest otherwise notwithstanding. People trying to avoid paying taxes don't do so by paying them to the wrong state. No evidence of tax evasion has surfaced.
Nevertheless, the errors to which Franken owned up are damaging, and in a way that matters to more than just DFLers. They raise questions about competence, and about the kind of campaign Minnesotans can expect if Franken is the DFL candidate for the seat occupied by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.
Doubts have now been planted about the former entertainer's ability to manage his own business, or to hire appropriate accounting help to do so. Voters are also left to wonder why the tax problems weren't spotted and corrected much earlier by a campaign that's been in operation for more than a year. A thorough internal inspection of a candidate's business affairs is considered routine in today's rough-and-tumble Senate contests, and this one promises to be one of the nation's hardest-fought.
It's also less clear than it was a week ago that a Franken vs. Coleman campaign would focus on the decisions that confront this nation. Franken's tax problems distract from consideration of Iraq, American security, global warming, health care, food policy and the rest of the serious business that comes before the U.S. Senate. If the race this fall becomes a referendum on Franken's tax compliance (and, inevitably, on an in-kind recitation of GOP tax sins), Minnesotans will be cheated out of the chance representative democracy affords to register their views on this nation's governance.
GOP state chairman Ron Carey -- himself no stranger to employer tax accusations -- called a news conference Wednesday to accuse Franken of owing back taxes in two more states, and to vow that Republicans won't let the matter drop. As DFLers evaluate the Franken candidacy before the June 6-8 state convention, they should take Carey at his word.