Norm Coleman goes positive

The financial crisis has obviously had an adverse impact on Republican candidates across the country. It certainly has in Minnesota, where it has leached support from our incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman, who is locked in a tight race with former humorist Al Franken. Franken and his supporters have run an unrelentingly negative campaign against Coleman, while Coleman has mixed positive messages with attacks on Franken’s record and temperament.

Franken has presented Coleman with a lot of material to work with on the negative side, including the failure of Franken’s corporation to procure worker’s compensation coverage for Franken’s employees and the failure to pay income taxes in 17 states over the past five years. Franken paid a fine for the worker’s compensation violation in New York and taxes and penalties for his failures to pay taxes in states where they were due, but only after his misconduct came to light in the course of the current campaign.

Franken has denied receiving any of the numerous notices sent to him on the worker’s compensation issue. He attributed responsibility to his accountant for the tax issues, but he has not authorized his accountant to answer questions on Franken’s taxes. The press has let the stories drop and it has therefore fallen to Coleman and his supporters to bring Franken’s misconduct to the attention of the voters.

Franken’s campaign includes the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has run an ad accusing Coleman of all but killing our troops in Iraq as a result of his support for the war. It is an outrageous, utterly disgusting ad. The DSCC is also running an ad stating that Franken has paid all his taxes, which we have no way of knowing is true in that Franken has concealed the relevant evidence in the case of his returns and prevented the most knowledgeable witness (his accountant) from talking. Franken has also refused to make his tax returns public.

Unlike Coleman’s advertising, which has included several statements from Senator Coleman appearing on camera and speaking in his own voice, I have not seen a single Franken ad that promotes a positive message with Franken speaking in his own voice. They may exist, but I haven’t seen them. Franken’s campaign has not so far succeeded in driving up his support, but Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley appears to have picked up support. The race among Coleman, Franken and Barkley appears to be moving away from Coleman, though not necessarily toward Franken.

Yesterday Senator Coleman made a dramatic move. He suspended all negative campaign ads and called on those who support him to do the same. He issued a press release with this explanation:

I’m doing this for two reasons. First of all, this is a terrible time for so many people with the financial crisis – with real concerns and fear about people’s jobs – about their life savings – and their children’s future and education — when we are all bombarded with negative messages of real consequence. At times like this, politics should not add to negativity – it should lift people up with hope and a confident vision for the future. And second, I decided that I was not all that interested in returning to Washington for six years based on the judgment of voters that I was not as bad as the other two guys. I want folks to vote for me, not against the other guys.

I saw Senator Coleman at services on Wednesday evening and chatted with him briefly. He was reflective and guardedly optimistic. I asked him if he had anything in reserve against Franken. He said he would be talking directly to the people of Minnesota. Yesterday his campaign told me he made the decision to pull down the negative advertising while reflecting about the campaign on Wednesday evening and the following day.

Franken’s campaign responded with Franken’s trademark humor. Franken’s spokeman asserted that Coleman’s directive was “a cynical ploy designed to change the subject and avoid scrutiny of his own record. It’s like an arsonist burning down every house in the village and then asking to be named fire chief.”

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