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Can Linda McMahon learn from Al Franken?

By Aaron Blake

Anybody who doubts that a candidate with former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon's unorthodox resume has a real chance at becoming a U.S. senator has a pretty short memory.

One need to look back only two years to find a senator who overcame a life lived quite publicly in the entertainment industry, reinventing himself in short order and winning a hard-fought campaign in one of the nation's premier Senate races.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) had plenty to defend during his razor-thin victory over Norm Coleman (R) in 2008, including jokes about rape, a column he wrote for Playboy about sex with robots, and vulgar rants about conservative luminaries. (Heck, he named a book "Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot".)

Kicking a man in the groin is among the least of McMahon's (R) worries right now. She's got real problems when it comes to the alleged steroid use and abuse in professional wrestling, the premature deaths of several former wrestlers and allegations of how employees were treated by the company.

So, it begs the question: is a comparison between McMahon and Franken warranted? And is it instructive?

We consulted some smart people who have been involved with both campaigns to see what they thought. Most saw the situations as pretty analogous, but they also noted that no two races are the same.

Why they are the same

*Offensive material
Both Franken's comedy and McMahon's WWE content featured content that was often sexual, gratuitous and not the sort of stuff any candidate running for political office wants to have to defend. Neither, it seems, had much of an idea they would be running for Senate one day, though Franken did toss it around quite a bit in the years before he ran against Coleman and was more politically active overall than McMahon.

* Inoculation
It's hard not to see McMahon's dismissals of R-rated wrestling story lines as "soap operas" and not think of Franken's repeated dismissals of his past comments as "satire." Both have come at their vulnerabilities head-on, admitting some were over the top (a phrase McMahon used Wednesday) but not begging for forgiveness, either.

The "satire" line was tested when Franken took heat (from Democrats included) about a rape joke he reportedly proposed when he was a writer for "Saturday Night Live". McMahon will have to answer some tough questions about a few things that were beyond the pale at WWE and may have to go further than her current "soap opera" line into genuine apology for some of the storylines in WWE.

* The money
Franken was the best-funded candidate in the country last cycle (including incumbents) and McMahon should be in that same discussion this cycle, having already self-funded $22 million and suggesting she may spend more than two times that when all is said and done. Money goes a long way toward controlling the message and fighting back on attacks -- as evidenced by McMahon's primary win.

* The environment
Even those close to the Franken and McMahon campaigns concede the two have been in the right places at the right times. Republicans couldn't compete against a popular Attorney General like Richard Blumenthal (D) in 2006 or 2008, and Franken probably wouldn't have beaten Coleman in 2010. Both appear to benefit from an environment that puts more pressure on their opponent -- and their parties -- to prove themselves

Why they are different

* Spouses
Franni Franken earns plaudits from just about anyone who knows her, and an ad she cut for her husband in the final month was among the finer moments of his campaign, humanizing Franken after a brutal ad war.

By contrast, Vince McMahon, the current chairman of WWE, isn't nearly as warm and cuddly (and, in fact, isn't cuddly at all). For every clip of Linda doing something potentially embarrassing in the ring, there are 10 (or 100) of a hulking Vince aka "Mr. McMahon" behaving as a "heel" (a.k.a. bad guy). In fact, McMahon (Vince, that is) was defiant in a recent interview with the Associated Press -- insisting that the portrayal of WWE in the race so far had been over-the-top.

* The state and the opponent
Connecticut isn't Minnesota, and Blumenthal isn't Coleman.

Minnesota has shown the willingness to elect unconventional candidates, including one from the professional wrestling industry (former Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura) and iconoclasts like Sen. Paul Wellstone (D). Connecticut doesn't quite have the same track record. In fact, former pro wrestler Bob Backlund (R) (who, as it happens, was born in Minnesota) took 28 percent in a 2000 race against Connecticut Rep. John Larson (D).

And Minnesotans don't take kindly to negative campaigning, which might have stunted some of Coleman's attacks.

Coleman also had lackluster approval ratings and had lost a statewide campaign before, whereas Blumenthal has won five terms in his current post and is quite popular.

* The candidate
McMahon is a woman, which may help soften her image and distance her from the misogynistic overtones of the many WWE highlights we're seeing these days. She's also less-defined as a candidate, having very minimal involvement in politics before this cycle.

Franken was a liberal commentator with a lengthy record of public discourse on TV, the radio and in books. He had to reposition himself politically as a more moderate voice, in addition to toning down the rhetoric.

While the comparison between Franken and McMahon is inexact, it's well worth citing when people suggest that the Republican's background means she can't win a Senate seat.

By Aaron Blake  |  August 11, 2010; 5:49 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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