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Al Franken comes out of his shell

By Aaron Blake

Slowly but surely, the "Air America" version of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken is making a comeback.

After largely keeping his head down during his first year in the Senate, Franken is showing hints of the rhetorical fire that made him such a lightning rod during his 2008 campaign against then Sen. Norm Coleman (R).

The first interviews the former "Saturday Night Live" star conducted during his campaign were notably funny-free and wonky. There was no sign of the liberal firebrand who made a name for Air America radio network and wrote a book called "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot." And since winning -- eventually, in the summer of 2009 -- Franken has turned down requests for national media interviews and, on the whole, just tried to blend in.

Now that he's a little more comfortable and established, those close to Franken say he's more liberated -- and it's showing.

Before the Netroots Nation conference last month in July, Franken told the ThinkProgress blog that Republicans don't want Americans to get jobs right now because they want to win in November. That was before, of course, he took to the stage and commingled with some of the most liberal elements in American political discourse.

When the mosque near Ground Zero became the issue du jour in recent weeks, even some top Democrats balked at supporting the idea. But Franken gave one of the starkest statements of support, hitting the other side's tactics as "one of the most disgraceful things that I've heard."

During the Elena Kagan Supreme Court hearings in June, Franken criticized the Court for favoring big corporations by putting a "fist" on the scales of justice -- "a fist with brass knuckles." Then, early last month, Franken reportedly mocked Senate Majority Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during McConnell's floor speech opposing Kagan.

McConnell reprimanded Franken, according to those familiar with the exchange, by saying: "This isn't 'Saturday Night Live,' Al." Franken apologized.

Norm Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who is close with Franken, compared the senator's coming-of-age to Hillary Clinton or former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). Clinton, as a former First Lady, and Bradley, as an ex-NBA player, both entered the Senate as celebrities with something to prove.

Ornstein said Franken isn't going to be afraid to show his political stripes. "There are going to be some areas, no doubt, where he will be a liberal spokesman," Ornstein said. "I think the Court is clearly one of them. At the same time, I think in a whole host of other areas, he's going to be more pragmatic."

Franken's higher profile begs two questions: 1) Is it good for Democrats? and 2) Is it good for Al Franken?

Much like Sarah Palin or President Obama, Franken's celebrity cuts both ways for his party. He is a great fundraising tool for Democrats, but he's also a great fundraising tool for Republicans. And during his campaign, Democrats privately and, in some cases publicly, worried about whether they wanted him to represent their party in the Senate.

Democrats so far have, by and large, smartly used Franken behind-the-scenes to raise money -- something he earned a sterling reputation for during his 2008 campaign.

In recent weeks, Franken has done events for Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher's (D) Senate campaign. He has also done a joint event for the Senate campaigns of Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) and Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), and has teamed with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) for a fundraiser in Illinois.

The idea, of course, is to benefit from Franken's fundraising prowess without having to answer questions about his past controversial statements.

It's mostly worked. But when Franken was in dark-red South Dakota for Herseth Sandlin last month, he noted at a public event that she would be a vote for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rather than GOP leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). That's something the Congresswoman would rather not talk about in a precarious reelection race.

As for Franken, he's got his own reelection to worry about in 2014, and Minnesota isn't a great place to be a hard-line partisan in either party.

Franken has, to some degree, molded his public demeanor around the approach adopted by his friend, and the man whose seat he now occupies, former Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

Wellstone was liberal, no doubt, but his populist streak and straight-talking made him something of a political legend in the state. But those close to Franken say the comparison is too simplistic and that Franken will be more practical.

That said, it would be a shock to see Franken escape a serious challenge in four years. He's got to constantly be looking over his shoulder, and watching what he says. "He's still very sensitive to the fact that there's a stereotype out there of Angry Al," Ornstein said.

A Franken spokeswoman said the senator is dedicated to improving the lives of Minnesotans. "Sen. Franken has consistently focused on holding the nation's biggest institutions accountable to the people they serve," spokeswoman Casey Aden-Wansbury said.

Franken is smart to continue focusing on his home state given the near-certainty that he will face a tough race in 2014. But, he also clearly maintains an active interest in issues well beyond the border of Minnesota and the more he takes on those issues, the more likely it is that Republicans will seek to use him as one of the faces of the Democratic party nationally.

As Franken learns to navigate that new profile, the situation then carries some risks. And it is definitely worth watching.

By Aaron Blake  | September 2, 2010; 10:13 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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