After trouncing their primary opponents, Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, DFLer Al Franken and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley are squaring off for a three-way free-for-all that promises to be one of the costliest, most vigorously fought high-stakes races in the country.
Franken and Coleman have already been waging a pitched, general-election style brawl for months, with pointed attacks against each other's record and character, with only token nods to the formalities of endorsements and primaries.
"This is what I've been waiting for," Franken said Tuesday night, waiting for returns at the Prince Hall Temple in Minneapolis. Starting with a kickoff speech planned for this morning in St. Paul, Franken said, "Every day we're going to talk about the issues in this race and define why I'm running to change the way Washington works."
But first Franken may have some shoring up to do with his DFL base. Primary opponent Priscilla Lord Faris waged a bitingly critical last-minute campaign against Franken, who she said was unfit to represent Minnesota. A political novice and lawyer known primarily as the daughter of legendary U.S. Judge Miles Lord, Lord Faris was pulling more than a quarter of the DFL vote late Tuesday evening.
David Schultz, who teaches politics at Hamline University, said that Lord Faris' ads, which took aim at Franken's satirical work, earlier tax issues and longtime New York residency, "were as deadly from the Democratic side as they would have been from the Republican."
Luke Friedrich, spokesman for Coleman, said the DFL returns spell trouble for Franken. "He still is failing to get the support of nearly one-third of his party," Friedrich said.
The cons for Coleman
But Coleman, who defeated token opponent Jack Shepard, a fugitive living in Italy, will face his own hurdles. Once a DFLer who turned Republican, Coleman started his Senate term as a willing ally of President Bush. He has since moderated his image and voting record, and now casts himself as a pragmatist who can bring both sides together.
Franken has already firmed up his line of attack, calling Coleman a "tool of special interests."
Coleman, whose ads have played up an "angry Al" image, tucked his sharp elbows away on Tuesday night, saying that "I feel pretty fired up" about the upcoming contest.
Coleman, who was in Washington, where congressional lawmakers remained locked in session, said the energy from campaigning "lifts me up," and, evoking DFL icon Hubert Humphrey, called himself "a happy warrior."
While he and Franken had "big differences" on policy, he said, "I think it's going to be a fun campaign."
Third party could matter
On the IP side, Barkley beat endorsed candidate Stephen Williams and a fellow colleague from the Jesse Ventura administration, former Commissioner Jack Uldrich. Barkley served eight weeks as senator when Ventura appointed him to fill the remainder of Sen. Paul Wellstone's term after Wellstone was killed in a plane crash less than two weeks before the 2002 election.
With only $4,000 in the bank, Barkley now must take on two well-financed, well-known titans to make even a credible showing.
This is Barkley's third run for the U.S. Senate, following bids in 1994 and 1996. Although his votes never approached double digits, the 5 percent he received during his first run gave "major party" status to the Independence Party, ensuring it an automatic spot on the statewide ballot.
Barkley said his immediate task is twofold: Get Williams' and Uldrich's supporters solidly behind his candidacy and working for him; and take three weeks to raise money nonstop.
Steve Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and a longtime congressional observer, said Coleman and Franken would do well to factor in the disruptive force of a third candidate.
"You could see a lot of disaffected voters looking for a place to land," Smith said. While third-party candidates in Minnesota generally have hurt DFLers, Smith said, this time a third-party candidate could cut against both.
"You've got some Republicans disenchanted with the party who couldn't imagine voting for Franken," Smith said, "and those in the middle or left who haven't warmed up to Franken" may see an Independence Party candidate as an alternative.
"This is going to be a very hard-fought race," Smith said. "This could be really close right to the end."