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Minnesota Becomes Scene of One of Most Competitive US Senate Races


Politics in Minnesota are anything but predictable. Voters in the state once elected a professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, as governor. This year, they could be on the verge of electing a former comedian to represent them in the U.S. Senate. Minnesota has been known to support Democratic candidates. The current U.S. Senator, Republican Norm Coleman, is facing a challenge mounted by former comedian and radio talk show host Al Franken. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports from the campaign trail in Minnesota.

Farmfest 2008 in Redwood County, Minnesota is one of the largest events bringing people in the agricultural field together.

The corn and soybean plants, new tractors and equipment displays attract farmers. It has been a tough year for Minnesota farmers. Food and gas prices have fluctuated wildly, making the economic outlook uncertain.

It's also been an up and down year for politicians in Minnesota, so Farmfest has become an important campaign stop as a way to connect with rural voters. U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican, is waging a re-election bid against Democratic challenger Al Franken and independent candidate Dean Barkley.

Coleman appeals to conservative voters like Mallory and Megan Wentzel. They are identical twins raised in a farming family and are voting for the first time this year.

"Norm has a heads up on him because he's been in office before," Mallory commented. "People trust him," Megan added. "But people also want to see what the new guy can do."

"But change can be scary I guess too," Mallory said. "If people are already used to what Norm has done."

Change is a central theme in the Senate race . Franken maintains that Coleman is closely linked with the unpopular policies of the Bush Administration.

In an interview with VOA, Franken, a former comedian, explained why he links Coleman to President Bush.

"He voted 98 percent of the time with the White House in the first year he was there, and he's done everything they want on the economy," Franken said. "He voted for every Bush budget - he wants to make permanent these tax cuts to the richest Americans while we're running these enormous deficits."

Coleman dismisses Franken's claims.

"I don't think the just kind of attack, attack, attack you know running against George W. Bush is going to get you elected to the United States Senate," Coleman said.

But Coleman has also used attack ads and messages, targeting Franken's sense of humor.

Coleman got a boost when his state was the site of the Republican National Convention, nominating John McCain for president.

But since then, the economy has become the top campaign issue and voter attitudes towards Coleman's negative ads have turned. Coleman has seen his lead over Franken evaporate.

Franken now leads in the polls, buoyed by voters in urban areas such as Minneapolis and St. Paul.

He plans to continue linking Coleman to George W. Bush.

"I think that there is going to be a lot of reminder[s] that this is four more years of the Bush administration that we're looking at, so I think this is probably good for me," Franken said.

"He's gotta do what he's gotta do," Coleman responded. "But I just think in the end that people, particularly in time when people are concerned about the cost of energy and concerned about keeping a roof over their heads and concerned about health care, they're going to be looking for optimistic, uplifting leadership that has gotten things done and that's what I am."

It is still a three-way race. Independent candidate Dean Barkley is trailing both Coleman and Franken in the latest polling data. But his presence may have helped Franken close the gap, observers say.

Democrats hope to place Minnesota in the win column on election night in their effort to strengthen their control over the U.S. Senate.

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