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On Sunday morning, Roll Call invited five Minnesota political figures to the New Louisiana Cafe in St. Paul to gauge their thoughts on two key races in the state this fall: the presidential race and the Senate contest between Sen. Norm Coleman (R) and comedian Al Franken (D). The five were: state House Assistant Minority Leader Laura Brod (R), state Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (D), Minnesota Chamber of Commerce elections director Mike Franklin, Democratic consultant Darin Broton and veteran political journalist Barry Casselman. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation.

On the presidential race:

Casselman: Originally the polls indicated a blowout for [Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack] Obama, but the more recent polls indicate a tightening.

Kelliher: I think Obama wins the state. There was already huge enthusiasm around Obama, and [Delaware Democratic Sen. Joseph] Biden should pick up some [New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton] voters who care about foreign policy. The Obama team is running things exactly how we do elections here — a door-to-door model, not a lot of people coming into the state.

Franklin: I agree about the enthusiasm, though I’ll add that Minnesotans are always enthusiastic about voting. Eighty percent turnout is not unheard of, and it will be hard to improve on that. But there definitely is energy. My guess is that 2008 will look like 2004, where Obama wins by about 5 or 6 percentage points.

It’s actually amazing that Bush did as well as he did here — he’s not an ideal Republican to run in Minnesota. He and [Gov. Tim Pawlenty] are very different. [Arizona Sen. John] McCain is more like a Minnesota Republican.

My hunch is that an Obama-Franken ticket does very well in the Twin Cities, but in “greater Minnesota” it has some liabilities. It’s not your father’s Democratic ticket. It’s a very liberal top of ticket.

Broton: I don’t even consider Minnesota a battleground this cycle — neither candidate has run an ad for months. Obama will win the state by 7 or 8 points easily, because folks here are not happy with Washington and their pocketbooks. Jobs are being shed, and gas prices are rising and really socking it to people.

Brod: I think the Democrats should take Minnesota for granted at their peril. This is an independent-minded state, and McCain is an independent-minded guy. He has a record of changing things. Sarah Palin fits right into that mold of taking on the establishment.

Franklin: But people don’t vote for the vice president.

Kelliher: In Minnesota, McCain would have done well to pick [Pawlenty, who was a leading contender for the job for months]. I think he would have gotten a very loyal VP who is polished and able to handle himself.

Brod: That’s a fair comment. But once people get to know Gov. Palin, I think they’ll see a lot they like. She’s a hockey mom, just a regular gal, and she hunts and fishes. I think she will do well in Minnesota, especially in rural areas.

On the Senate race:

Casselman: I would suggest that so far the race is not close. It’s not over — nothing is ever over in politics — but it would appear that unless Coleman is the issue, there’s no chance that Franken will win. And so far, the issue has been Al Franken. He’s been his own worst enemy.

Kelliher: It’s a close race, and both of these guys have significant issues for Minnesotans. But I think at the end of the day, Minnesota is voting strongly for Obama, and they will also vote to send another U.S. Senator to Washington to support the things that President Obama wants to do. It’s less about the personalities and more about what the agenda will be. Republicans will still want to paint him a certain way, but he deeply loves his country and the military, and he wants them to come home safe and sound.

In the cases of [former GOP Sen. Rudy] Boschwitz and [the late Democratic Sen. Paul] Wellstone, the candidate who connects as fighting for the common Minnesota agenda wins out. And this year I think that will be Al Franken.

Franklin: Having watched Norm Coleman when he was running for governor and losing, then watching him win the Senate seat, I can say that if Tim Pawlenty is the most talented politician in the state, Coleman is one of smartest and most workmanlike. He’s not going to let any stone unturned. He will run a smart campaign.

A year ago, my thought was that it would be a very close election. But Franken has to get the voters not only to fire the incumbent but also to hire himself. I think the second half of that is missing. If I were a Democratic operative, I’d have significant buyer’s remorse. There are a lot of ticket splitters in this state.

Kelliher: There may even be some McCain-Franken ticket splitters!

Franklin: I would be a little concerned if I were someone rooting for a Democratic victory. The Democrats have to be careful he doesn’t nullify some of Obama’s coattails.

Broton: It will be a close race. Here’s Sen. Coleman’s problem: He’s never been well-liked. Not in the 1998 governor’s race, and then the only reason he won in 2002 was because of what the Democrats did at the memorial service for Wellstone, which soured most independents on the Democrats. His approval ratings have been around 50 percent for just about his whole term. The impression is that he hasn’t done much, and he’s a party switcher who doesn’t seem to have core set of values. He changes as the election season comes around. He starts off a solid Republican, and as it gets close to re-election, like the spring begins to thaw, he says, “I’m a moderate.”

Brod: I disagree. He’s never been a right-wing Republican. He’s always kept his pulse on where the people are in the state. He’s been target number one since the day he was elected. That’s a hard position to be in, and he’s done it quite well. It won’t be a runaway race, but even Democrats would agree that Norm Coleman is one of the hardest workers in politics. He’s tireless.

Broton: Both candidates have run mean, negative races. There are ads every day now tearing each other down. The challenge for Franken and Coleman is to see whoever can come back to talking about issues and solutions. That candidate will win.

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