With two weeks to go until Election Day, the exceptionally volatile and closely watched U.S. Senate race in Minnesota has tightened up.
The latest Star Tribune Minnesota Poll shows DFLer Al Franken at 39 percent to Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's 36 percent. Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley was the choice of 18 percent of likely voters.
A Minnesota Poll two weeks ago showed Franken leading Coleman by nine percentage points. The new poll, conducted Thursday and Friday, sampled 1,049 likely voters and has an error margin of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
Among the poll's most interesting findings is the gender gap that has opened in Franken's favor. Coleman has a slight, three percentage point lead among men, but Franken now has a potentially decisive nine-point lead among women.
Franken and Coleman have tussled hard over that demographic, with the DFLer's campaign aiming a number of events in recent weeks specifically at female voters to counter Republican attack ads that attempt to portray Franken as a misogynist.
The Barkley effect
Franken also continues to run well behind Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who holds a lead of 52 percent to 41 percent over Republican John McCain, according to the Minnesota Poll.
Part of the difference between the Senate and presidential polls is attributable to the presence of Barkley, who, despite a late entry and meager budget, has managed to get and keep a solid 18 percent of likely voters.
In the three months that he's been a candidate, Barkley has spent about $75,000, campaign spokesman Chris Truscott said, including campaign travel expenses and three statewide radio ad buys.
"We're about on par with where Gov. [Jesse] Ventura was a decade ago," Truscott said, referring to the third-party candidate's ultimately successful run in 1998. "Things are roughly where we expected. For having been outspent 400 to 1, we like where we're at."
But even though Barkley has made a respectable showing, the depth of his support remains shallow, the poll shows. Only 18 percent of his supporters say they back him strongly, while 82 percent say they are less than firm in their support. Because Barkley has drawn voters from both sides, even a slight erosion in his support could tilt the board toward Coleman or Franken in the waning days of the race.
Lot of negativity
Tim Keyser, 49, a cheese salesman in Duluth, said that when he travels his route through Minnesota and Michigan, a lot of customers are talking politics and most of them want change. "There's a lot of 'W' [President Bush] negativity out there," Keyser said, "and it's hurting Republicans." Keyser said that he favors Franken partly because he's read his books and likes his politics, "but also, I gotta say, I think Coleman has been Bush's toady."
In a campaign that has seen some of the most vitriolic ads and the harshest rhetoric in the country, feelings are running high and it's clear some voters are fed up with combatants in both major parties.
"I've had it," said Sue Baldwin, a radiation therapist from St. Cloud. "I'm voting for Dean Barkley. Norm Coleman has not done a good job, and I don't think Al Franken is even capable of representing Minnesotans."
Almost parroting Franken attack ads against Coleman, Baldwin said that "Coleman is kind of beholden to special interests. It looks to me like he got very comfortable in Washington with special interests." Barkley, she said, "said he wouldn't take special interest money, and that's very important to me."
John Russell, 47, an unemployed radio program director in Rochester, said sincerity is the main quality he seeks in a candidate. "I don't believe Norm Coleman is the top senator in the country, but compared to Mr. Franken he's a lot more sincere," Russell said. "Coleman's done a good job."
Russell said he's a Republican, but more than willing to jump sides. "I support [First Congressional District Rep.] Tim Walz," he said. "I love [Democratic Sen.] Amy Klobuchar. I look for someone I can be for, not someone to vote against. Coleman has been a public servant for a long time, and he's got a certain amount of trust built up."
Other campaigns weigh in
Franken campaign spokesman Andy Barr said that even with his candidate's slender lead, the poll shows that Minnesotans "are ready to reject the policies of George Bush and Norm Coleman. Al's message of standing up for the middle class is resonating with people."
The Coleman campaign issued a written statement saying: "We have always believed this would be a close race. ... If Minnesotans want someone with a proven ability to work across party lines to balance the budget without raising taxes, protect Social Security, create jobs for the middle class and turn this economy around, Norm Coleman will be their choice."
With only two weeks to go, all three campaigns say they will spend most of their time traveling the state stumping for votes and preparing for the final two debates of the season. The three next square off at 7 p.m. Friday on Twin Cities Public Television's "Almanac" program.
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288