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No Rush to Judgment

Democrats Willing to Bide Their Time in Finding Coleman Foe

Democrats are eager to deny Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) re-election next year, but they are less enthused about rallying around a standard-bearer early in the cycle.

Comedian Al Franken is expected to announce his bid for the Democratic nomination Wednesday, while attorney Mike Ciresi confirmed on Sunday that he will open an exploratory committee. Additionally, state Rep. Joe Atkins said he will decide about running this spring.

Franken has done the most to seed a campaign. He launched a leadership political action committee and has regularly attended party gatherings and hosted fundraisers since moving back to the Land of a Thousand Lakes last January. Democrats thank him for his contributions but are not ready to hand him the nod just yet.

“Franken has dotted all his i’s and crossed all his t’s, but neither [he nor Ciresi] seems to have much buzz among activists on the ground yet,” said one Democratic operative in Minnesota, who did not want to be named.

“I don’t feel the hope and excitement that [Sen.] Amy [Klobuchar] (D-Minn.) had around her at a comparable time last cycle,” the source added.

Klobuchar emerged from a crowded field to ultimately face only token opposition for the state party’s endorsement when she successfully sought the seat being vacated by then-Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) last year.

Local activists talk about recruiting someone else into the race, though no consensus candidate has emerged, the source added.

Barry Casselman, a Minnesota-based nationally syndicated columnist, said Democrats would be wise to keep hunting.

“I don’t think the Democrats have a strong candidate yet,” Casselman said. “I think there will be many candidates in the race.”

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak automatically would be a top contender, but he has essentially ruled out a Senate bid.

Some party leaders think that a woman would match up best against Coleman.

Potential recruits include state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman and state Auditor Rebecca Otto.

“Seeing some more women [run] would be nice,” said one Minnesota Democratic lawmaker, who did not want to named. “There’s no shortage” of good options, the lawmaker added.

National and state party leaders demur from dissecting the Democratic field. When asked, they ding Coleman instead.

“For four years Norm Coleman has talked out of both sides of his mouth to Minnesotans, but his record is clear and he’s going to pay a price next November,” said Matt Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Democratic Party, said any Democrat is better than Coleman.

“We welcome Mike Ciresi to the race,” she said. “There’s going to be a vigorous debate over the next two years about who’s best to beat Norm Coleman, but [ultimately] any of the Democratic … candidates would be better at representing Minnesota than Coleman.”

McIntosh acknowledged the contributions Franken has made to the party and said he too will be welcomed into the race.

“He’s been a real leader in the party for 2006 … he played a big part in winning the seat from [former Rep.] Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) for [Democratic Rep.] Tim Walz.”

For all the barbs being lobbed Coleman’s way, the state’s senior Senator is trying not to look concerned.

“Sen. Coleman’s first priority is working to represent Minnesota values in Washington, and get things done,” said Cullen Sheehan, Coleman’s campaign manager.

“The issue of who his opponent will be in the next election is neither his choice, nor his concern,” Sheehan added. “There is much to be done before thoughts turn to the next election.”

The Minnesota Republican Party wasted no time in bringing up Ciresi’s failed effort to secure the Senate nomination in 2000 and immediately set to attacking his career.

“While Mike Ciresi may be able to fund an avalanche of attack ads, he’ll once again have a tough time convincing Minnesotans he possesses the experience and judgment to serve in the U.S. Senate,” Republican Chairman Ron Carey said in a statement. “Given Senator Coleman’s record of bipartisanship accomplishment, Ciresi will have to prove he brings more to the race than just a big checkbook.”

Ciresi amassed millions and gained name recognition by leading Minnesota’s lawsuit against tobacco companies.

Franken did not comment about Ciresi’s announcement, made just three days before what likely will be his own.

Atkins took a thinly veiled shot at both Franken and Ciresi in saying that he would not decide about his own future until the Minnesota Legislature adjourns May 21.

“Unlike some of the other folks contemplating it, I’m in the Legislature,” he said, adding that his job as a lawmaker comes first.

Atkins said a vigorous fight for the party nod will be good for Democrats.

“I certainly welcome them to the race; the more the merrier,” he said.

Freshman Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) agreed.

“We have an abundance of riches,” he said. Ciresi and Franken “are both our friends. Let the caucus play out.”

In Minnesota, Democrats and Republicans convene local caucuses to nominate individuals as delegates to the summer state convention. Those delegates then vote whether to endorse a candidate for a particular statewide race. If the candidates do not like the outcome, or if no one wins the endorsement, a fall primary ensues.

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