In Minnesota, Sen. Norm Coleman has lately seen his support sinking in the polls — as have many of his fellow Republicans in the wake of the economic uncertainty.
At the same time, the numbers keep looking better for Coleman's Democratic challenger, comedian and activist Al Franken. Further complicating the picture is a third contestant, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley.
Coleman's re-election prospects were looking better last summer, when polls had him leading Franken by double digits. That lead has since vanished, and most surveys now give Franken a slight edge.
Coleman these days is riding what he calls "The Hope Express," a marathon campaign swing through Minnesota. Thirty-one people recently welcomed Coleman to The Point, a coffee house in Hastings, a river town of 20,000.
Coleman opens his pitch by acknowledging the elephant in the room: the nation's economic meltdown.
"Folks [are] angry about what's happening in Washington and the impact it's having on you," he said. "Were you angry? I'm angry, too, and the question is, what do you do with it?"
Not once does Coleman mention his recent vote for the $700 billion financial rescue package. Independent voter Bill Theel of Wanamingo, Minn., later confronts Coleman over that vote and says he won't support Coleman because of it. Coleman is not surprised.
"If I lose this election, it'll be because of that vote. I don't think there's any question about that," he said.
Coleman And Attack Ads
Coleman is running many ads attacking Franken. But when a recent poll showed a majority of Minnesotans turned off by those negative ads, Coleman declared he was swearing them off and called on others to do the same.
Critics say it's simply making virtue out of necessity, which is a judgment Coleman rejects.
"All the consultants will tell you the way to win this race is, in fact, [to] keep beating up on your opponent," he said. When asked why he then pulled his negative ads, Coleman said he did so because of what he saw around the state.
"I didn't want to feed into that," he added.
But TV ads attacking Franken have nonetheless continued.
"Franken can't manage our recovery. He can't even manage his own business. He was fined $25,000 for failing to provide workers' comp insurance for his employees. Al Franken: He'd make things worse," the ad said.
The ad was paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Coleman, in a new ad, claims he cannot stop such attacks. "I'm Norm Coleman. I can't control every ad out there, but I'm proud to approve this one," the ad said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was quick to produce a put-down: "Calling for a suspension of negative ads after smearing your opponent?" said the ad. "Shameless. There are some things Minnesotans are willing to believe — for everything else, there's Norm Coleman."
Democratic Opponent Al Franken Gaining Ground
Democratic rival Franken has been campaigning in traditionally Republican strongholds.
In Owatonna, a town of 24,000, about 100 people pack into the local VFW on a Saturday afternoon.
In this county that President Bush carried four years ago, Franken gets a warm reception.
He too acknowledges the obvious — that these are tough economic times.
And unlike his rival Coleman, Franken pointedly brings up the $700 billion financial package.
"I opposed this bailout, and I opposed it for a number of reasons — one of which was the rush, the rush. It reminded me of the rush to war," he said.
Afterward, registered Republican Marcia Cadrey says Franken has convinced her. "I think I'm going to vote for Franken, but I had come in here kind of undecided," she said.
There are other signs that Franken's fortunes are rising. Last month, he beat Coleman 2-to-1 in fundraising. Republican political analyst Sarah Janacek said he is on a roll.
"No question, Al Franken has improved dramatically as a candidate in the last month. No question about that," she said.
Minnesota's Third-Party Candidate For Senate
Joining Franken in going after Coleman is the third man in the race, Independence Party candidate Barkley. At their third debate last week, Barkley lit into Coleman for the economic meltdown.
"This happened on your watch. We're all paying the price right now. This is the price we're paying for bad government. If you were in Enron right now, you'd probably be indicted — not running for re-election," he said.
Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier says Barkley is a man to keep an eye on.
"Dean Barkley is a wild card, and his impact on the election result is really unpredictable," Schier said.
Fewer than one-fifth of Minnesotans back Barkley in recent polls. This likely saps some support from Franken, but it also means Coleman has two challengers trying to take over his job.