No one disputes Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer has come a long way since he launched his Senate campaign last October.
Like Al Franken, Nelson-Pallmeyer has been traveling Minnesota talking to DFL party activists. Unlike Franken, Nelson-Pallmeyer isn't famous.
The social justice and environmental activist and educator has raised a tiny amount of money -- at least compared to Franken. Nelson-Pallmeyer ended March having collected a total of about $550,000. Franken's number came in at $9.2 million.
Many Nelson-Pallmeyer supporters say the candidate reminds them of Paul Wellstone.
"In the first five minutes of his talk, he had me," said Delia Jurek, who first met Nelson-Pallmeyer late last summer.
Jurek is now volunteering at Nelson-Pallmeyer's campaign headquarters at least once a week, and she's driving him all over Minnesota for appearances.
"This is the first guy that gives me hope since Paul Wellstone died that someone can get there and make a difference," Jurek said. "He's got the chops to stand up to Norm. He's got just an incredible depth of experience on the issues. He's got an action plan for everything he's going to do."
Nelson-Pallmeyer tells activists he would begin immediately withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. He's convinced that pulling the troops and U.S. military contractors would bring other nations together to help Iraq move forward.
He would slash military spending by 30 to 40 percent and roll back tax cuts for wealthy Americans. He would use the money to fund a host of domestic initiatives, including single-payer national health care, education and green energy programs.
“He does have a great deal of support.”DNC member Jackie Stevenson
Nelson-Pallmeyer says Americans are overwhelmed by domestic and foreign policy problems. He's convinced that increasing numbers of DFL activists agree with his proposed solutions.
"We talk about the Iraq war in ways that connect with people's lives," Nelson-Pallmeyer said. "That's why I'm constantly reminding people -- one day of Iraq war spending could hire 9,300 teachers for a year. Or people get it when I talk about, we're going to spend more money to occupy Iraq this year as a nation than our entire highway and road budget. So people are making that connection between the cost of the war and unmet needs at home."
Nelson-Pallmeyer used to talk about his campaign running behind Franken's, but no longer.
"I would say the gap is closing, and certainly the electability issue has shifted over the last two months in my direction, a lot," said Nelson-Pallmeyer.
Nelson-Pallmeyer declined to speculate about whether Franken's tax problems have driven delegates toward his campaign. Instead, he said the more people he's able to speak with, the more he's able to bring into his fold.
"He does have a great deal of support," said Democratic National Committee member and Minnesota DFL Feminist Caucus Chair Jackie Stevenson.
Stevenson initially supported Mike Ciresi in the Senate race. When Ciresi dropped out in March, Stevenson threw her backing behind Franken.
Stevenson said she's not surprised Nelson-Pallmeyer's anti-war, out-of-Iraq message is appealing to DFL activists. It reminds her of the Vietnam war.
"I think it's almost a little too early to call, because I don't know that anybody has sat down and added up their numbers," Stevenson said. "Because when you go to a congressional district convention and you find mobs of people in a t-shirt for one candidate or another, that doesn't mean that that candidate has those votes there."
Stevenson said she thinks all of the news coverage about Franken's tax problems had some activists looking more closely at Nelson-Pallmeyer's campaign. But she's convinced once Democrats understand the full story behind the unpaid income taxes, any unease about Franken over the matter will fade.
As for tracking delegate support, the campaigns go through painstaking efforts to gauge where they stand. But neither of the camps will share their numbers. Franken campaign spokesman Andy Barr predicts Franken, not Nelson-Pallmeyer, will leave the convention in Rochester as the DFL-endorsed Senate candidate.
"We're confident, because of the way that Al's message has been resonating with delegates that we talk to every day, here in the office and around the state," Barr said. "It's a message that's very much about being a voice for Minnesota's working families. They haven't had one in Norm Coleman. The folks we talk to are ready to send a different kind of senator."
Barr will not go so far as to say he expects Franken to win on the first ballot.
While the Franken campaign is certain the general election will be between Franken and Coleman, Minnesota State University Mankato political science professor Joe Kunkel said he doesn't think it's a foregone conclusion that Franken will walk away with the endorsement.
"Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer is running a surprisingly strong campaign for the DFL endorsement," said Kunkel.
But he adds that a Nelson-Pallmeyer endorsement victory would be a tremendous Franken upset. Kunkel said Nelson-Pallmeyer is benefiting from Mike Ciresi's decision to leave the Senate race two months ago, and from Franken's tax problems.
He also said Nelson-Pallmeyer's left-of-Franken positions on the issues, from the war to universal health care, are attractive to party activists who tend to be more liberal than mainstream.
Ultimately, Kunkel said convention delegates will make their endorsement decision on electability. Nelson-Pallmeyer doesn't have Franken's name recognition or his ability to raise money.
But, Kunkel emphasized, Nelson-Pallmeyer also lacks Franken's baggage, from tax issues to the wealth of material from Franken's time as a comedian, a satirist and political commentator.
"It's clear that Sen. Coleman wants to make Al Franken the issue, rather than the issues being the issue," Kunkel said. "And, I think, DFL delegates will be looking at both of those candidates and see who they think might be electable."
Kunkel said Franken's liabilities and Nelson-Pallmeyer's low profile may have many Democrats looking for an alternative.
Attorney Mike Ciresi has not slammed shut the door to re-enter the race. If the convention ends split and without a Senate endorsement, Ciresi could step back into the contest without violating his pledge not to run against against whomever the delegates choose.