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Senate candidates kick off campaign season

ST. PAUL - On the day Senate candidate Al Franken kicked off a recent campaign tour around Minnesota, Sen. Norm Coleman hopped a flight to Washington for his job on Capitol Hill.

Yet as Franken was traveling the state to tout his Democratic candidacy, Coleman announced a TV advertising buy that blanketed much of Minnesota with a message highlighting the Republican senator's bipartisan knack for getting things done.

Minnesotans already are seeing and hearing plenty from the candidates in this year's U.S. Senate race, a contest that could exceed $30 million and exhaust even the most ardent political observers.

That presence will only increase now that the general election battle is under way. The two major candidates received their party's endorsement - Coleman's was a formality, Franken's a quickly settled contest - and no Democrat has announced a primary challenge.

The candidates are defining themselves to voters and beginning to highlight their differences, University of Minnesota Morris political scientist Paula O'Loughlin said.

"You don't want to let the opposition define you," she said.

Franken on Thursday concluded the four-day tour to more than a dozen cities and plans more campaign events in the coming weeks. Coleman has conducted similar statewide swings, and his campaign said he will continue to stump around Minnesota as the Senate schedule allows.

Both candidates have hit the airwaves, too.

Coleman's first TV ad of his re-election bid is a 30-second spot which attempts to emphasize his ability to bring people together. The campaign followed the TV spot with the Friday release of a radio ad to be broadcast in northern Minnesota and the Twin Cities.

It is critical of Franken for comments in a recent Bemidji Pioneer interview in which he described some of Coleman's work for Walker and other rural Minnesota communities as "very small-bore stuff."

Franken communications director Andy Barr said Franken said "there's so much more that a senator should be doing" to help people in rural areas and elsewhere.

The Franken campaign ran ads before he was endorsed, but would not discuss future ad plans.

"That will happen when it happens," Barr said.

After this initial burst of campaigning, the pace probably will slow a bit, O'Loughlin said. "There probably will be a slight lull because Minnesotans are going to the cabins."

The candidates eventually will take to the debate stage together. The Coleman and Franken camps both say they are eager for debates, but have not specified how many they will agree to and when they will start.

"We'll have to see," said Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan, adding that much depends on campaign schedules. "Obviously we'll be happy to debate Al Franken."

Said Franken: "I will do any format. I will be very happy to debate him."

For now, though, the candidates are focusing on stump speeches and fund-raising.

Sheehan said he expects each campaign to raise and spend between $10 million and $15 million before the Nov. 4 election. Barr, with the Franken campaign, said each campaign will spend at least $15 million.

"There's a lot of fund-raising going on this summer - there has to be," O'Loughlin said. Both campaigns will compete for dollars with the presidential campaigns and other races, she added.

Voters will be subject to a barrage of ads from beyond the Senate candidates. The Minnesota race is shaping up to be among the most competitive Senate contests nationwide. That is sure to attract advertising from national political organizations and independent groups.

"It's going to be one or our high-profile races," said Rebecca Fisher, the National Republican Senatorial Committee's communications director.

Like its Republican counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would not comment on its advertising plans in Minnesota. But deputy press secretary Hannah August said Democrats view Coleman as particularly vulnerable.

"It's definitely one of the biggest pick-up opportunities around the country," August said. "It's definitely a race that we have our eye on."

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