Coleman nips Franken in Minn. Senate race

— -- Republican Norm Coleman outlasted Democrat Al Franken in one of Minnesota's tightest Senate elections ever, squeaking past the former comedian early Wednesday by a margin that appeared certain to trigger a recount.

With 4,129 of 4,130 precincts reporting, Coleman led Franken by 762 votes out of nearly 2.9 million cast. Coleman had 1,210,790 votes, or 42.03%, to Franken's 1,210,028 votes, or 42%.

Dean Barkley of the Independence Party was third with 15%, and exit poll data showed him pulling about equally from Coleman and Franken.

The margin was well within a threshold set by state law for an automatic recount that could drag into December. If it holds up, Coleman, 59 and a former mayor of St. Paul, would be among the fortunate Republicans who survived big gains by Democrats nationwide.

"The senator is thrilled and humbled to be given the opportunity to serve the people of Minnesota for another six years," campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said in a statement.

"Today is a time for us to come together as a state and a nation. There is much work to be done, and the senator is ready to roll-up his sleeves and bring people together to get it done."

Franken, 57, said he would await a recount. He said his campaign was already looking into reports of irregularities in Minneapolis where some voters had trouble registering, though he wouldn't elaborate.

"We won't know for a little while who won the race, but at the end of the day we will know the voice of the electorate is clearly heard," Franken said. "This has been a long campaign, but it is going to be a little longer before we have a winner."

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, said a recount wouldn't begin until mid-November at the earliest and would probably stretch into December. It would involve local election officials from around the state.

"No matter how fast people would like it, the emphasis is on accuracy," Ritchie said.

Ritchie's office ran a speedy recount in September of a close primary race for a Supreme Court seat. That took just three days, but Ritchie said the Senate race is entirely different.

"Having a ton of lawyers and other partisans injected into the process, that will change the dynamics of it," Ritchie said.

Earlier, Coleman saw his double-digit lead in the polls evaporate as voter worries about the economic crisis escalated.

A former Democrat, Coleman cast himself as an independent-minded legislator. Franken sought to tie him closely to President Bush.

The race tightened further as Barkley drew support from both Democrats and fiscally conservative Republicans concerned about the growing federal deficit, said Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.

The state has grown more Democratic in recent years but has a history of supporting third-party candidates, electing former wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor in 1998.

The final days of the campaign were marked by bitter accusations between Franken and Coleman over a last-minute lawsuit filed by a Texas businessman that alleged a Coleman donor had funneled $75,000 to the Republican through his wife's business. Coleman denied any wrongdoing and accused Franken of defaming his wife.

Franken said he had no connection to the lawsuit. "This is not about me," he shot back during the campaign's final debate Sunday. "This is about Sen. Coleman's political sugar daddy."

Franken's celebrity as a comic, writer and liberal talk show host both helped and hurt him.

"It helped him enormously in terms of fundraising," Jacobs said. "There's never been a Democrat (in Minnesota) who has been able to raise as much money as quickly as he did."

But Franken was put on the defensive, attacked for not paying taxes and for penning a raunchy column in Playboy that Republicans denounced as degrading to women. He defended it as satire.

Franken largely avoided humor on the campaign trail, focusing instead on policy issues, emphasizing plans to restore "middle-class prosperity" by making health care and college more affordable.

"There have been no laugh lines in his campaign," Jacobs said of Franken.

"He's been a pretty dreary policy wonk. … It served a strategic purpose — that this (race) was no joke."