Minnesota to start recount in tight U.S. Senate race

ST. PAUL -- For two years, Minnesota has been home to the most expensive U.S. Senate race in the country, and one of the most bitter. And that was just the beginning.

Democrat Al Franken and Republican Sen. Norm Coleman — locked in a race that could alter the power structure of Washington — are continuing their fight as officials begin a recount Wednesday that is expected to last for weeks.

Coleman, a freshman who won his seat in 2002, is ahead by 215 votes out of 2.9 million cast, according to the latest unofficial results. Because the margin is so close, state law requires all ballots to be recounted — by hand.

"Right now, the count is zero to zero," said Franken attorney Marc Elias, one in a team of election lawyers from both campaigns who have descended on the recount. "Our strategy … is to let this process work out."

The outcome of the Senate race in Minnesota, along with those in Georgia and Alaska, will determine whether Democrats can achieve the 60 votes they need to head off Republican-led filibusters. To do so, Democrats must win all three states.

In the Alaska race, the Associated Press reported late Tuesday that Republican Sen. Ted Stevens narrowly lost to Democrat Mark Begich. A recount is possible. Georgia will hold a runoff election Dec. 2.

Both Minnesota candidates are expected to be in Washington today, but their campaign staffs are engaged in a war of words over the process as they try to ensure that questionable ballots break their way.

"Coleman won," said Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak, echoing the confident stance the campaign has maintained since the election. He added, "We want a full and fair recount."

Bill Flanigan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Minnesota, called the race the most negative the state has ever seen and suggested that the barrage of negative advertising may be partly why the result was so close.

Franken was criticized by Republicans for his humor, including political sketches he helped craft for NBC's Saturday Night Live. A television ad paid for by the national Republican Party called him "unfit for office" and said he "laughs at the disabled."

Coleman faced questions about a bedroom he rented in the Washington home of a friend and political operative. Franken tried to paint Coleman as a Bush insider, and a national Democratic Party ad said he is "shameless" and "part of the problem."

"I'm totally sick of it," public school worker Amy Dutton said as she left Mickey's Dining Car in St. Paul. "You're inundated with ads."

With early lawsuits already filed by both campaigns, the specter of the 2000 presidential recount in Florida has hung over the process. State law gives election officials broad power to determine voter intent, Flanigan said. Most Minnesotans vote on optical-scan ballots — there will be no "hanging chads" — but those ballots will be counted by humans in locations throughout the state.

"We've done this with other very close elections, and it's always been run very coolly, professionally," Flanigan said. "The heat will be outside the process, not inside."