Both candidates for the Minnesota Senate seat have gone on the attack over the last few weeks, with incumbent Norm Coleman hitting Al Franken for his temperament and his tax evasion, and Franken firing shots at Coleman for being too close to George Bush.  Who’s winning this exchange?  So far, it looks like … Dean Barkley:

The sniping between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and DFLer Al Franken is paying off big time for one of the U.S. Senate candidates — latecomer Dean Barkley.

A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll finds that support for the two leading candidates has eroded significantly since May, but that Coleman has sustained more damage. His lead over Franken has narrowed from seven percentage points in the spring to four now — 41 percent to 37 percent — just as one of the nation’s most combative and expensive Senate races enters its final phase.

The beneficiary of the crossfire is Barkley, the Independence Party nominee who registers a robust support level of 13 percent among the 1,106 likely voters polled. He’s been campaigning for only two months, mostly on his own shoe leather and the dim memory among voters that he served briefly in the U.S. Senate.

Dim describes Barkley’s experience, although that’s not Barkley’s fault.  Instead of appointing election winner Coleman to complete the term of the deceased Paul Wellstone, who died just a few weeks before the 2002 elections in a campaign plane crash, then-Governor Jesse Ventura picked the little-known Barkley to Wellstone’s seat instead.  That gave Jesse one last opportunity to stick his thumb in the eye of Minnesota Republicans, and lost Minnesota the chance to gain a little more seniority for its freshman Senator and perhaps gain better committee assignments.

Coleman lost ground to Franken since the last MinnPoll, but Franken has to be very concerned to see these numbers.  He hasn’t polled above 40% yet in this race, indicating a hard cap on his potential support.  While Barkley took more from Coleman than Franken in this last period, Barkley serves to split the anti-incumbent vote and dilute Franken’s ability to gain traction on Coleman.

He shouldn’t expect much of a respite, either.  Republicans plan to hit Franken hard in the next few days over the scandal involving the misuse of funds by Air America that were intended for use by the Gloria Wise Girls & Boys Clubs, money that wound up in Franken’s pockets, although not controlled by him.  They will add that scandal to the already well-known tax problems Franken faces from his incompetent management of his own personal corporations.

Coleman needs to tack more to the positive, however, if he wants to return to the near-majority numbers he previously reached.  Coleman has a good track record in the Senate for moderate Minnesotans to discover, including his excellent work in detailing the extent of the UN Oil-for-Food scandal that put billions of dollars into Saddam Hussein’s pockets.  He has been a more independent voice in Congress than Democrats want to admit, but until Coleman plans a major effort on positive ad buys, Minnesotans won’t learn about it.  Certainly, they won’t find that in the Strib’s coverage.