MINNEAPOLIS — The only thing that might be longer than a bone-rattling Minnesota winter is the state's never-ending 2008 Senate race, which Jane Burton says is getting downright ridiculous.
After picking out her Carolina Fraser fir at the farmers market in north Minneapolis on Monday, Burton, a 59-year-old homemaker from Minneapolis, said that she might impose a new rule on Christmas Eve: No discussion of either candidate, Democrat Al Franken or Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.
Four weeks after Minnesotans cast 2.9 million ballots in an attempt to decide the costliest Senate contest in the nation, incumbent Coleman is clinging to a lead 344 votes — with more than 92 percent of the ballots recounted as of Tuesday afternoon. Coleman began the recount with a lead of 215 votes.
On Tuesday, the Franken campaign said its internal count showed Coleman with a lead of only 50 votes. And Franken was expected to pick up more votes after officials in the Democratic stronghold of Ramsey County announced that 171 uncounted ballots had turned up.
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While the official recount will end Friday, no one's expecting a winner to be announced anytime soon.
The Minnesota Canvassing Board must decide the fate of nearly 6,000 contested ballots before certifying the results on Dec. 16. And amid allegations of hundreds more missing votes and ballots that were improperly rejected, the Franken campaign is ready to take the fight to state courts or even to the U.S. Senate, which is the final arbiter.
If there is no winner declared by the time the new Congress convenes in January, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty will appoint a temporary senator.
If the Senate intervenes, as Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., now suggests it might, it wouldn't be unprecedented. The closest election in Senate history ended in 1975: After spending six weeks debating the contest between Republican Louis Wyman and Democrat John Durkin in New Hampshire, the Senate declared the seat vacant, and a new election was held.
The long race has stained Minnesota's pristine political reputation. The campaign focused less on issues than on Franken's controversial writings as a comedian/satirist and questions of whether he had promptly paid his taxes, while Coleman was hounded by questions of whether he allowed wealthy donors to buy his suits and provide him with below-market housing in Washington.
"If there was a Senate race this cycle that needed to end on November 4th, it was this one," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst with the Cook Political Report. "It was just so nasty."
But she said the real battle will begin if Senate Democrats try to seat Franken before legal challenges are concluded.
Coleman has been a constant Democratic target since defeating former Vice President Walter Mondale, who replaced Sen. Paul Wellstone on the ticket after a plane crash killed Wellstone only days before the 2002 election.
Coleman, the former Democratic mayor of St. Paul, had angered many party activists by endorsing Wellstone's re-election in 1996, then switching parties to run as the Republican candidate for governor in 1998, only to lose to former wrestler Jesse Ventura.
Franken was a close friend to Wellstone but was regarded by many as a carpetbagger when he moved to Minnesota from New York to launch his campaign.
After Georgians settled a runoff election on Tuesday, the Minnesota race is the only unsettled Senate contest. If Democrats picked up their 59th Senate seat in Georgia, the Minnesota outcome will determine whether they'll have a filibuster-proof majority in the next Congress.
At the Dunn Bros. coffee shop on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, 29-year-old Adam Lewis, a graduate student in literature, said he didn't understand all the fuss about counting the votes and what's taking so long.
"I supported Franken, but if Coleman got more votes, then fine, let him win," he said. "Let's move on. I don't think it necessarily has to be so complicated."
But it has become plenty complicated.
Franken attorney Marc Elias said Tuesday that Coleman has inflated his lead because his campaign has challenged nearly 200 votes more than the Franken campaign, which results in them not being counted. Last week, the state Canvassing Board rejected Franken's attempt to count all rejected absentee ballots. But Elias said no recount will be complete until more than 9,000 of the rejected ballots are carefully examined and all missing ballots are found.
"Whether that happens at the county level, at the Canvassing Board, in the courts or the United States Senate or somewhere else, we do not yet know, but we are confident that in the end these votes will be counted," Elias said, predicting that Franken will win.
Coleman spokesman Mark Drake said his campaign is equally confident that Coleman still will have the lead when the recount is completed, calling it "a methodical, conscientious process" that provides a textbook example for a recount.
"We are seriously concerned by both the talk and actions we've seen from the Franken campaign signaling that they intend to go against the will of Minnesotans and take this to the floor of the U.S Senate for a political battle to start the new Congress and first term of President-elect Obama," Drake said.
Coleman and Franken are both acting like victors. Coleman tried to claim victory the day after the election, and again later, and has been congratulated by numerous GOP senators. And Franken caused a stir by going to Capitol Hill, where he met with Reid and other Senate Democrats.
When the Canvassing Board ruled against Franken, Reid called it "just one step in a process to ensure every Minnesotan's vote is counted." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., responded by saying that the recount "is being handled by Minnesotans, not D.C. politicians," and that Reid should remain neutral in case the election results go to the Senate.
Meantime, the disputed election has Minnesotans adjusting.
Cindy Reichert, director of elections for the city of Minneapolis, said that December is normally a slow month. But this week, she's overseeing the city's recount in a warehouse in northeast Minneapolis, where more than 100 people — sitting and standing around 12 long tables — examined and counted ballots, as volunteers for the Coleman and Franken campaigns watched.
Election judges placed disputed ballots in a special "Challenged Ballots Envelope" for delivery to the Canvassing Board. Reichert said the recount has been hard on her budget, forcing her to hire many part-time judges.
In suburban Edina, Bill Brice, 83, said he delayed work on his income tax returns — he usually likes to get an early start — so he can follow daily developments in the newspapers and on television.
"It's impossible to tell who's going to win," said Brice, a retired minister.
On the south side of the city near Lake Calhoun, retired banker Vaughn Rasmussen still has his yellow and blue Franken sign stuck in the snow in front of his house, next to his red and white plastic plug-in Santa. He said he has never before mingled political signs with the Christmas decorations in his front yard, but added: "The election is still going on — so I kept my sign up."
And at the tree lot, next to rows of towering firs, Burton shivered as snowflakes fell and a raw northerly wind reddened her cheeks. She said she has a son and daughter-in-law who are very much into politics, but that she'll try to steer them clear of election talk over Christmas.
"It was hard to vote for either one of them in the first place," she said. "I'm not crazy about Franken, but I don't like Norm Coleman, either."
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