DFL Senate candidates run quiet campaign for delegates

Conference time
Mike Ciresi and his state campaign director, Kerry Greeley, talk about how to respond to questions from a blogger.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

It's too early to even attempt to engage the general public in Minnesota's 2008 Senate campaign, so there are not yet TV ads or debates. But that does not mean Mike Ciresi and Al Franken are sitting back and waiting.

They've both pledged to drop out of the race if the other wins the endorsement at next spring's DFL state convention. That means the people they need to impress the most right now are DFL activists, the party insiders who will decide endorsement.

On the stump
DFL Senate candidate Al Franken talks to students and faculty at Augsburg College in April of 2007.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

People like Jim Graeve, who's been a delegate before and who could very well be one next year.

"I live out here in rural Stearns County -- St. Joseph, Minnesota. I've been involved with the DFL Party since the Vietnam War," said Graeve.

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Ending the Vietnam War inspired Graeve to get behind Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign in 1968. Nearly 40 years later, it's the war in Iraq Graeve wants over, and he thinks candidates should be out talking about it with voters.

Graeve said he's already gotten direct mail from the Franken campaign, but nothing yet from Ciresi.

"It is early, but that's the game we're in and we can't change that," Graeve said. "I don't mind them getting out and organizing and talking with folks, and meeting with people early."

Franken's campaign office
Al Franken's current campaign office is in his former downtown Minneapolis Air America office space.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Andy Barr runs communications for the Franken campaign. He said DFLers are still fired up from success in last fall's mid-term elections, and are stepping forward to the point that accommodating them is a challenge.

"It is early and there was a fairly big election here not too long ago, and a lot of people put a lot of time and energy into that. We have found that for the most part the energy has carried over," Barr said.

While it's taking both campaigns time to get up and running, they are actively courting the DFL faithful. Franken's calendar has been packed with appearances at low-level party gatherings.

The Franken campaign says it's not that they're ignoring the general public. They're just very purposely going to places flush with potential convention delegates.

At a recent appearance at Augsburg College, Franken told students he wants them to be part of what he predicts will be more electoral success for Democrats, that will strip the White House from the GOP and further erode Republicans power in Congress.

Andy Barr
Andy Barr is the communications director for Al Franken's campaign.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Standing before an enthusiastic group of students at Augsburg's chapel, Franken mixed one-liners with calls for universal health care, energy independence, changes in tax policy and new approaches to foreign relations.

"What we need now more than ever are people that are willing to stand up and tell the truth," Franken told his audience.

Franken did not mention Ciresi, but he did take several jabs at Sen. Norm Coleman.

The state director of Mike Ciresi's campaign, Kerry Greeley, is also working out of temporary office space.

Greeley said like Franken, Ciresi is working party insiders. On the issues, the two line up nearly identically. Both campaigns say the focus should be on Norm Coleman, and they've pledged not to attack each other.

Tami Jenson
DFL activist Tami Jensen says she thinks it's too early for candidates to be courting delegates for the 2008 elections.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

But the Ciresi campaign is contrasting itself with Franken. There are subtle references to Franken's New York roots and his credentials.

"It's not just enough to be an outspoken critic of Bush and the administration," said Greeley.

"Al's done a great job. I like Al. I like his wife. They did a lot of good work in the party since Al's moved back here to Minnesota a few years ago. Mike has been out there working for Minnesotans for 35 years. The delegates are going to see that," Greely said.

Both the Franken and Ciresi campaigns acknowledge starting so early is risky. It can harness activists' energy, but it could also wear them out.

Tami Jensen, who was a delegate at last year's DFL state convention, is one of those who says the 2008 campaign has begun way too early.

"I'm a strong Democrat. I am DFL all the way, and I see on the caller ID phone calls all of the time, and I am just not ready for it," Jenson said. "It's just too much, too soon. So I think they burn people out before the fight really starts."

For his part, Republican Norm Coleman has no internal party contest. Accordingly Coleman needs to focus only on next year's general election. But Coleman too is working party activists. He's trying to raise money by playing up the threat from Franken and Ciresi.