Al Franken Is A Big Fat Candidate... Maybe

Air America's outspoken pundit tests the political waters.

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"You sound like your head is just so full of facts and you want to get them out there," the young man said to Franken. "But it sounds good. Next time, try paraphrasing back to him — say, 'So you said .... '" Then he shuffled away.

The kid who had offered performance feedback to the radio personality was Andy Barr, 22, who was recently plucked from Harvard to work as a researcher on Franken's radio show. Franken's projects tend to rely heavily on Harvard boys; Franken is a graduate himself, and 14 Harvard students were involved in researching his previous book during the semester he spent as a fellow at the college's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Billy Kimball, 46, Franken's longtime producer; Ben Wikler, 24, a producer-writer for the show; and Barr all come from behind the same Ivy curtain. The three help Franken write most of his jokes. (And both Andy and Ben appear in an ad for Franken's new book now playing on Amazon.com, in which he knees a "right-wing jerk" in the groin and smashes a stool over his back.) In the future, Barr's main job will be to head Franken's burgeoning political operation, the Midwest Values Political Action Committee, which will allow Franken to support candidates in the 2006 election cycle.

"Later this fall, we're going to be building relationships with fund-raisers and people who make the machinery of a political organization go," Barr said of his role with the P.A.C. "Also building relationships with other parts of the progressive community. That sounds like a euphemism for 'We're looking for donors,' but people aren't just pulling out a checkbook. This fall is about building a resource base and a base of ideas for once we really get going in Minnesota."

At some point, after living in Minnesota for a while and seeing the 2006 election through, Franken will decide whether or not to run himself in 2008 (against the Republican Senator Norm Coleman, who won the seat that opened up after Senator Paul Wellstone's tragic death in 2002).

"What I'm doing now is really about getting active in Minnesota for the 2006 cycle," Franken said in his office after his show, between chomps of broccoli. But would Franken have a better platform as a Minnesota senator than he does right now as a celebrity talk-show host?

"That's part of the calculus. I don't know; it depends. My No. 1 priority is the show, but if I am gonna run for Senate, I do have to do the things you have to do to run for Senate. And you know, the sooner I get back home, the better."

Celebrity politics — especially Democratic celebrity politics — are nothing new. Franken himself co-starred in John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign with Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Ben Affleck and Glenn Close, among others.

But four years later, he's the only one likely to be running for office. And though Minnesota is resolutely a blue state, it's also the American Midwest and prone to wild swings. Star quality has succeeded before — look at the election of pro wrestler Jesse Ventura to the Minnesota governor's mansion in 1998. But if Ventura's campaign was a success, his governorship was questionable.

"I think it's very early to make an assessment," said Jeff Blodgett, the executive director of Wellstone Action and the man who ran Wellstone's Senate campaigns, when asked to evaluate Franken's Senatorial prospects. "Al Franken is a very important figure in the resurgence of the progressive movement, both in Minnesota and nationally. He's really helped people climb up off the floor and feel like they can take on the conservatives again. People like him here, love what he's done with the show, and they love the book. Whether or not he's a candidate, most people aren't looking at him in that regard yet."

It's not always clear Franken looks at himself that way yet, either. His appearance — campaign stop? — on Letterman's show on Oct. 21 was a case in point.

"I think there are certain things that are not appropriate for someone who is running for Senate and who is a senator," Franken had said before the Letterman episode. "I don't think it's that many. But you know, the areas that I'm thinking of in humor are irony, and dark humor, and those are places where you have to be careful — and I'm sure I'll continue to use both, and it'll be a learning process."

During his performance on Today, Franken came across as refreshingly blunt ("They lied to us," he said about the Iraq war) and very un-politician-like, which is sure to be a blessing and a curse. When asked whether it's possible to navigate a Senate campaign without resorting to the deception and compromises that seem to drive him crazy in professional politicians, he said, "I think you can make compromises without lying."

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