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Sen. Franken, once edgy comic, now prefers to play it safe

NORTHFIELD, Minn. – Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., broke into a spontaneous impression that recalled his days as a mad-cap comic. Jumping, waving his arms, running in place, the former “Saturday Night Live” actor was pretending to be his political hero, Paul Wellstone, chasing alongside the late senator’s son during a high school cross-country race.

“You can take this guy, you can take him,” Franken said, a dead-pan rendering of Wellstone’s famously hyperkinetic personality.

The crowd roared its approval at a college campus rally last week, a rare moment of belly-aching laughter in an otherwise sober 15-minute reflection on Franken’s accomplishments.

Quickly, he returned to the script, one in which he plays the most boring of U.S. senators. Yes, Al Franken is boring, and tactically so, and because he is boring, he appears well on his way to winning re-election.

It’s been this way since the summer of 2008, when a team of Washington political hands took charge of Franken’s struggling Senate bid and decided that a kind of strategic boredom was the way to turn him into a serious politician focused on small-bore policy. He won by 312 votes, but only after an extended recount delayed his swearing-in by six months. Since then Franken has worked to perfect the pose of dull but diligent legislator.

The approach has paid huge rewards: Polls show him holding a double-digit lead over his closest opponent in this year’s campaign.

Wellstone, who died exactly 12 years ago today in a plane crash during his re-election campaign, remains a mythical figure for today’s liberal activists. Franken, a close friend of Wellstone, repeatedly invoked his spirit, and some supporters long for Franken to fill the void left by the former Carleton College professor’s death.

Franken “has a great voice, if he would just use it,” said Mary Wood, 93, a retired social worker who was friends with Wellstone in the 1980s.

On the campaign trail, rather than attacking Franken’s comedic past, Republican Mike McFadden has tried to highlight his low profile. “I’m running against someone who has been absolutely invisible,” McFadden told several dozen employees at a food packaging plant in the western suburbs of Minneapolis.

McFadden charges that Franken has been in hiding, both declining to be a leader on major issues such as the battle against the Islamists and in his accessibility to constituents.