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Proud Coleman in the Spotlight

This is the house that Norm built.

Or at least that’s what President Bush called the Xcel Energy Center in 2002, just days before Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman was elected to the Senate. As mayor of St. Paul, Coleman helped build the hockey arena where Republicans have assembled this week for their national convention.

“I feel like a proud papa every time I walk around here and see all these people,” Coleman said Monday. “I got to drop the puck opening night here. I couldn’t even dream of this. It was a miracle that we had a hockey arena here, so a national convention goes beyond what I could have imagined.”

But the national convention could also be a sore spot for Coleman, who faces a tough re-election challenge from the likely Democratic nominee, comedian Al Franken. Minnesota is a Democratic state, and Coleman’s prominence at the GOP get-together could remind voters about his political affiliation, which is something the Senator occasionally tries to blur.

In an interview with reporters from a skybox in the Xcel Center on Monday morning, Coleman conceded he would not be at the Republican National Convention if it weren’t in his hometown.

The big event, however, has put Coleman and his re-election campaign front and center.

Although Coleman’s Monday evening speech was canceled, as the Republican National Committee scaled back its official activities, he plans to speak on the convention floor Wednesday about job creation and Thursday at the RNC members’ luncheon. Coleman also said he has two fundraising events this week, including a low-dollar event for the under-40 crowd.

“But in tough races, you really do need to be home, you need to do work,” he said. “You don’t get a boost by simply being at the convention. That doesn’t do much for you for the voters back home.”

Public polls show Coleman leading Franken but with margins in the single digits. Coleman could have been boosted by having Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) on the presidential ticket; presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) instead picked a dark horse candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

Coleman acknowledged that Palin brings a lot to the ticket — including a love of hockey — but Pawlenty was his choice for vice president.

“As most folks know, Tim and I go way back,” Coleman said. “I always considered him, almost in way, a kind of a protégé. I’m his biggest fan, and I would have loved for the rest of the world to see his talents. That didn’t happen, but I can’t calculate the impact on my race.”

Oddly enough, it was Pawlenty who almost ran for Coleman’s job — and vice versa — in 2002. Pawlenty was hours away from announcing a bid for Senate when Vice President Cheney talked him out of running, the now two-term governor told the Minnesota press corps in April 2001. Party leaders, meanwhile, persuaded Coleman, who had lost a gubernatorial bid in 1998 and was thinking of trying again in 2002, to run for Senate.

Former Minnesota GOP Chairman Chris Georgacas was the head of the draft committee for Pawlenty for Senate in 2001 and later became campaign chairman when Pawlenty ran for governor. He said Pawlenty pivoted easily into a gubernatorial bid, eventually defeating businessman Brian Sullivan for the GOP nomination.

“In 2001, the party was blessed to have both of them as well as some other potential contenders running for two very consequential offices at the time,” Georgacas said. “Speculating at which one is better suited for which office, I think it’s very hard to say that one would have been better suited for the other office.”

Coleman said party leaders picked him to run against then-Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), who died in a plane crash weeks before the election, because polls showed he could defeat the liberal darling.

“It wasn’t because folks were my best friend, or wanted to give me the honor of running a race that some thought was impossible to win,” Coleman said. “Polls showed me beating Paul Wellstone and that I was the only Republican who could do that, and people were still pretty happy about this hockey arena that we’re having our convention in.”

And for now, the future for both of these men appears uncertain with Coleman in a difficult re-election race and Pawlenty not on the presidential ticket. Coleman, who ran unsuccessfully to be chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2004 cycle and has talked openly of trying again in the next cycle, on Monday wouldn’t commit to seeking the NRSC job. And though Pawlenty can run for a third term as governor in 2010, he would likely face a tough race, as the state has voted more often for Democrats since 2002.

“The fortunes of these two men, for the moment, look to be in very different conditions,” Georgacas said. “But I think there’s a renewed feeling about Republicans in the state that Coleman will beat Franken.”

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