HASTINGS, Minn. – In the 1980s, Al Franken was cracking jokes on "Saturday Night Live." Mike Ciresi, his chief rival for the Democratic nomination for the Senate this year, was serving as general counsel to the government of India in a landmark lawsuit over a catastrophic industrial accident.
A decade later, while Franken was writing books like "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot," Ciresi was leading the state of Minnesota's lawsuit against Big Tobacco, winning a $6 billion settlement.
Despite his impressive resume, Ciresi finds himself trailing Franken in the Democratic contest. The comedian-turned-candidate has raised millions more, lined up the most important labor endorsements and dominated news coverage.
To offset that, the multimillionaire trial lawyer is delivering a simple argument to Democratic regulars: He is more electable than Franken.
"Al Franken has made a living calling people names," Ciresi said in an interview.
Democrats see a strong opportunity this year to unseat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, hoping to drag him down with his support for unpopular Bush administration policies, particularly the war in Iraq. Coleman got elected in 2002 after Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash, and many Democrats still feel the seat is rightfully theirs.
The Republicans have appeared nearly as eager to take on Franken. For months, the state GOP and right-wing bloggers have exhumed dozens of edgy jokes, off-color remarks and sarcastic asides from Franken's long career as a comedian, writer and radio broadcaster. In a fundraising letter in October, the Coleman campaign asked donors for help in running against the "vitriolic, partisan comedian" with a "long history of fringe-left rhetoric and bitter partisan attacks."
Talk like that has some Democrats worried.
"I just think there are a lot of things Al Franken has said over the years that are going to sound harsh and they're going to sound in some cases outrageous," said Allan Spear, former state Senate president and a Ciresi supporter. "I'm afraid we're going to end up with a campaign in which the focus is on Al Franken's record rather than Norm Coleman's record."
The Franken campaign rejects that argument. Franken spokesman Andy Barr said it is "a little naive" to think that that the Republicans "will throw up their hands and admit defeat" if Ciresi gets the Democratic nomination.
Franken held a wide lead over Ciresi, 32 percent to 17 percent, in a recent poll from Minnesota Public Radio and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
In the coming weeks, Ciresi and his supporters will be arguing his potential strength as the Democratic candidate in a series of precinct caucuses and local party conventions that lead up to the state Democratic convention in June. There, about 1,400 delegates will endorse a candidate for the September primary.
Ciresi, Franken and one lesser-known candidate have all promised they won't run in the primary if they don't get that endorsement.
"This is really a campaign right now for the hearts and souls of 1,400 people," Ciresi said.
Ciresi, 61, has shown he can win arguments. Since the 1980s, he has been a regular on national lists of the country's most influential trial attorneys. He led the legal team in Minnesota's 1998 case against the major tobacco companies. He was lead counsel for India in its successful case against Union Carbide over a gas leak in Bhophal that killed up to 5,000 people. And he won millions in the Dalkon Shield case for women injured by the birth control device.
"I think people see Mike as someone who has that kind of John Edwards story — he's taken on the big powers and won," said Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone's former campaign manager. Blodgett has not endorsed a candidate.
Franken and Ciresi aren't that different on the issues — both speak about economic justice for the middle class, fixing the health care system and getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. But Franken has picked up some crucial endorsements, including that of the state teachers union.
Union president Tom Dooher said: "We just feel the energy Franken has created is one people can get behind and can be excited about."