ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Someone has a sense of humor in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race, but it's not the former "Saturday Night Live" writer and comedian.
As front-running Sen. Al Franken sticks with sober ads highlighting his work on issues including the mortgage crisis and mental health in schools, it's Republican challenger Mike McFadden who is bringing the funny. His lighthearted television spots include him taking a punch from a pint-sized football player and joking about cutting out his own son's stitches.
Their contrast in TV style highlights McFadden's early challenge: In order to beat a well-known incumbent, McFadden first needs to get Minnesota residents to remember his name. And for new faces, humor can be an effective hook.
"People really don't know who he is. The lighter tone is to set him up as a likable guy, an everyday dad," said Kevin Sauter, a communications professor at Minnesota's University of St. Thomas. "It's very typical, August kind of stuff."
McFadden continued down the light path this week with an ad showing a Franken lookalike in a Lexus, struggling badly to back his posh speedboat down a boat launch while onlookers shake their heads in disgust.
"Here in Minnesota, there's a right way and the wrong way. And Al Franken keeps missing the mark ... badly," the narrator says and the lookalike Franken backs into a garbage can. The ad then details the freshman Democrat's voting record, which Republicans have criticized as being too close to President Barack Obama, and his critical vote for the Affordable Care Act. The ad wraps up with McFadden, in a big pickup, backing a simple fishing boat expertly down the ramp.
McFadden's campaign spokesman Tom Erickson said their advertising approach allows them to contrast McFadden's political differences with Franken while still presenting McFadden as a "light-hearted guy." Each ad has been sprinkled with policy positions — just like his son's stitches, he'd take a scissors to the health care law, too. In his turn as a football coach, one of his young football players announced "spending has to be stopped."
Sauter said McFadden's ads have been light on jabs and political positions because his campaign is still testing what issues will galvanize voters in November. That will change in the coming months, he said.
"I think he's just poking around to see what's going to get traction. Is the Obamacare shot going to really carry a load in Minnesota? Will Obama drag down Franken?" Sauter said.
But Franken's ads have been heavy on issues. In one ad released in June, he walks in front of several homes and speaks directly into the camera as he explains credit rating agencies' role in the subprime mortgage crisis and his own efforts to combat them.
"Sen. Franken has a long record of things he's gotten done and working to get done for Minnesota, and that is what we're communicating to voters," campaign spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff said.
McFadden's campaign is working with the same advertising team behind a panned-but-popular ad from Iowa's Republican U.S. Senate nominee, Jodi Ernst, which drew on her childhood castrating hogs as proof she'll know "how to cut pork" in Washington.
McFadden's football spot drew several days of coverage in early summer, with enough questions about whether he was hit in the stomach or the groin that the whole question was dubbed "Groin Gate." (McFadden's campaign insists it was a gut shot.)
"That had a lasting impact. It gets people talking and it adds a little levity to the race," said Republican political operative Ben Golnik. "When you're a political unknown like McFadden, you need something that's going to stick with people, that's memorable."