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Minnesota Race May Get Weirder

A pro wrestler, a comedian and a lawyer are all running for Senate.

But don’t wait for a punch line, because this isn’t a joke: Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) made increasingly positive suggestions in a Wednesday interview with National Public Radio that he would run as an Independent against Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). Although Ventura backed off his comments slightly later in the day, his candidacy would be a wild card in an already unusual race and a potential blow to the likely Democratic nominee, comedian Al Franken.

Ventura said he would not officially confirm he was running until the July 15 filing deadline, though he said he is not spreading rumors about his candidacy to generate buzz about his new book — an allegation that many of the former pro wrestler’s detractors have made.

Instead, Ventura said in the interview that he is motivated to run because of his opposition to the Iraq War — a position that could steal disaffected voters from Franken.

“That’s the reason I run, not to sell books,” he told NPR in a suburban St. Paul parking lot. “I run because [the war] angers me.”

Ventura later denied reports that he was getting into the race in an interview with the Associated Press, explaining that he meant “I run” in a hypothetical sense.

“They have no idea,” Ventura told the AP. “I said the decision will be made next Tuesday. And I’m no further than that.”

For now, both the Coleman and Franken campaigns are holding their tongues until Ventura actually gets into the race.

“I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Franken said in an interview on Wednesday. “Certainly it’s up to him. But the filing deadline is I think on Tuesday, and you can ask me then what I think because I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Yet Franken may have more pressing worries. There continue to be rumors that attorney Mike Ciresi, who dropped out of the Democratic Senate race in March, may change his mind and challenge Franken in the Sept. 9 primary. Ciresi has told newspapers that he was keeping his options open after Franken endured months of bad news cycles leading up to the state party convention.

However, it now appears that Coleman has been hit with bad news of his own after a National Journal report revealed that he was renting a Capitol Hill apartment from a prominent Minnesota Republican operative. Coleman has been paying $600 a month to live in the English basement unit in the home of Jeff Larson, a consultant who has contracted with the Senator’s campaign.

Coleman appears to have cooperated with the magazine, which reported that at one point the Senator had not yet paid rent for four months out of the past year: Coleman’s rent checks for two of the months were never cashed, he paid for one month with used furniture and Larson waited until after the magazine’s inquiry to cash another month’s check.

“Norm Coleman still has a lot of questions to answer about his sweetheart rental deal, which appears to be significantly cheaper than any other apartment available in the area,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matthew Miller. “This issue won’t go away without him addressing it, and it’s going to have major ramifications for him in Minnesota.”

Yet when asked about the political fallout from the incident, Coleman campaign spokesman Mark Drake said the matter has so far not proved pertinent to Minnesotans.

“I really don’t think it has any political impact,” Drake said. “I think people look at this and see Sen. Coleman is renting a cramped basement one-bedroom in D.C. … He’s trying to cut back on expenses and he has kids in college.”

Instead, Drake pointed to Franken’s missteps over the past few months, including reports from this spring that he incorrectly paid about $70,000 in taxes to 17 states and an article he wrote for Playboy magazine’s “Porn-O-Rama” issue in 2000 that surfaced in May. The column, which was intended to be humorous, graphically depicts a first-person journey through a fake research center and describes multiple sex acts.

“We think Al Franken has a long history of degrading and objectifying women in ‘satire’ and ‘humor’ and we think that’s reflected in the Playboy article, where women are basically reduced to sex robots,” Drake said.

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher also blasted Franken for his “insensitive judgement” on that issue and news that recently surfaced showing his Midwest Values Political Action Committee was fined $7,200 by the Federal Election Committee for failing to file a post-general election report in 2006.

“Al Franken has yet to prove he is a serious candidate and we will continue to remind voters of his outrageous comments and insensitive judgment,” Fisher said. “The FEC fine that was recently discovered is just more proof that he has no intention of being completely honest with the voters of Minnesota.”

But it wasn’t just Republicans who seized on Franken’s writings.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who supported Ciresi while he was seeking the Democratic nomination, publically chastised Franken and said she had no plans of endorsing him.

Although Franken had enjoyed a productive relationship with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the incident reportedly put him on ice with the rest of the Gopher State Democratic Congressional delegation. However, he said he’s met with every member of the delegation except McCollum and Rep. Tim Walz since the state party convention in mid-June.

But that will change next week, when Franken and McCollum plan to meet. A spokeswoman from McCollum’s Congressional office confirmed the meeting.

“I think she wants to be filled in on what I plan to do in the campaign,” Franken said. “And I want to get her advice on some general issues on St. Paul, obviously.”

Franken said he was unsure who requested the meeting, but his campaign was organizing it.

Franken insisted that the controversies surrounding his campaign would not be a big deal for voters in November, but said that Coleman renting an apartment for below market value would because Minnesotans pay attention to ethics issues. Franken said that if he’s elected, he’s not sure where he would live or how much he expects to pay for rent.

“I haven’t really given a lot of thought about where I’m going to live,” he said. “I may bunk with Norm Ornstein, my friend, oddly enough, from [the American Enterprise Institute] and his wife Judy while I look for a place. They have a spare bedroom.”

Ornstein, also a Roll Call contributing writer, said Franken has stayed at his place before, but “wouldn’t want to make it a permanent living arrangement.”

“We’re not looking to take in roomers at this point, but we’d have to make sure that we didn’t do anything that would tread on any of the ethics issues in a way Coleman may have,” Ornstein said.

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