You don’t know Jack, but you do know Norm — and he’s in trouble

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Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., is a talented and resilient politician. Your average politician would have found his career in ruins after losing a statewide race to a third-party candidate who made his name as a pro wrestler. And your average politician wouldn’t have been able to win a race after his opponent died tragically, forcing him to campaign against a substitute candidate who just happened to be a former vice president. Your average politician wouldn’t be in office right now, but your average politician isn’t Norm. So be aware that I’m not going to shovel dirt onto Norm’s political grave ever, and I’m never going to call him out of a race before it’s over.

That said, if the Coleman campaign isn’t worried right now, it should be.

A new University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute/Minnesota Public Radio poll shows Coleman losing to his most likely DFL challenger, Al Franken, 43 percent to 40 percent. The same poll shows him only narrowly leading his other likely challenger, Mike Ciresi, 43 percent to 38 percent. Even dark horse Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer holds Coleman under 50 percent, trailing 47-29. The poll had a margin of error of 3.2 percent.

Undoubtedly, Coleman supporters will point to that margin of error to say that he might actually be leading Franken, and that’s true: he might. A three-point lead is hardly impregnable. But Coleman is the incumbent, not Franken. And 40 percent is disastrously low for an incumbent seeking re-election.

Conventional wisdom holds that an incumbent should be at 50 percent or better going into a campaign. This is because an incumbent is a known quantity. You can love Norm or hate Norm, but you know who Norm is. You know how he did as mayor of St. Paul, you know how he’s done in the Senate. He’s been a major player in the Minnesota political scene for the better part of two decades. His party switch alone is almost legendary at this point. You know Norm.

You don’t know his challengers, not as well. Oh, if you’re marginally plugged in, you know Franken’s written books and acted in shows and said some dumb things and some smart things. You know Ciresi litigated the state’s tobacco lawsuit and the Bhopal case and ran for something once. You know Nelson-Pallmeyer has…uh…who’s he again?

But you don’t know whether Franken’s a good guy or a bad guy, you don’t know if Ciresi’s a weaselly trial lawyer or a John Grisham hero, you don’t know Jack. And so you’re more likely to hesitate before you say you support them; you’re more likely to wait to be convinced.

But Norm? You know Norm. And so it’s an easy call if you like him to back him. And it’s an easy call to oppose him — even if you’re not quite sure you can support the other guy.

This is the hill Coleman has to climb. Some 55 to 60 percent of the electorate starts out unwilling to support him. Now, not all of them will break for his ultimate opponent, but all of them are predisposed to. All of them will listen to the Democratic nominee this fall listening for why they should back him. Norm, meanwhile, has to somehow tar a new candidate as unacceptable and prove himself acceptable.

It’s a daunting task for Coleman. That’s not to say he can’t do it. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that you don’t count Norm out prematurely. But if you’re a Coleman supporter and you’re not worried right now, you should be.

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