Image: Former Republican Senator Norm Coleman
Jim Mone  /  AP
Former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman sits pensively during a February court delay before the start of the Senate vote recount trial in St. Paul, Minn.
updated 3/8/2009 5:01:13 PM ET 2009-03-08T21:01:13

What lasts longer than a Minnesota winter? The struggle to choose the nation's 100th senator.

More than four months after Election Day, Minnesota voters are only marginally closer to knowing whether Democrat Al Franken or Republican Norm Coleman will represent them in Washington.

The stakes go beyond Minnesota: Franken would put Democrats in position to muscle their agenda through with barely any Republican help, and he could be a difference-maker on the federal budget and a proposal giving labor unions a leg up on management when organizing.

Some Minnesotans, like actor Jared Reise, are past caring who wins and just want the state to regain its second senator.

"This is a very important time to have everybody there, with the way the economy is," said Reise, of suburban Eagan, who didn't vote for either man on Nov. 4. "It's a little long-winded, this whole recount."

Recount ended two months ago
The statewide recount ended two months ago, with Franken ahead by 225 votes out of 2.9 million cast. Coleman had held a similar sized lead heading into the recount. The campaigns are now arguing in a special court whether the latest tally is accurate.

Coleman, whose term expired Jan. 3, argues that absentee voters were treated differently based on where they lived and that officials made mistakes that gave some people two votes. Until those and other irregularities are accounted for, his lawyers say, it's impossible for the public to have faith in the result.

Franken's lawyers counter that the election was as precise as humanly possible. Six weeks into the trial, they say Coleman has failed to prove to a three-judge panel that there were enough errors to reverse the outcome.

The trial has delved into voter penmanship, quirks of registration law and other election intricacies, often putting a harsh light on a state with a national reputation for well-run elections.

Joe Mansky, who oversees voting in Ramsey County, said elections just can't be calibrated for a race this close. The margin between Franken and Coleman is seven one-thousandths of a percent, closer than any other Senate election in history.

"I would readily concede that our system is not perfect, but it stands up favorably to other activities," Mansky said. "The attorneys are not in court to tell people what a great job we're doing. They're here to highlight the problems."

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Coleman appears in court a few times a week, jotting notes during testimony and conferring with his attorneys.

Franken steering clear of courtroom
Franken steers clear of the courtroom. Aides say he is boning up on matters before Congress and sketching out a staff so he can jump right in if he prevails. He unsuccessfully asked the state's Supreme Court for an election certificate enabling him to take office before the lawsuit reaches its end.

Franken, a former "Saturday Night Live" comic, wonders if Republicans will push Coleman to keep the race tied up in court.

"They don't want this extra vote," Franken said. "They're willing to let Minnesota have one senator in order to delay my getting there."

Coleman acknowledges the Senate makeup heightens interest on the outcome, acknowledging a Franken win would put Democrats "one vote away from being filibuster-proof, one vote away from having a lock on the House, the Senate and the presidency."

Coleman said he's focused on making his case in trial, and he won't get into what lies ahead if he doesn't succeed.

'We all want resolution'
"I'm not in this to prolong it. I'm in it to make sure we get a fair count — that people are enfranchised, their votes are counted fairly and no vote counted more than once," Coleman said.

Last week, Coleman and his lawyers floated the notion of setting aside last fall's election if the judges can't settle it with confidence. It would take a change in Minnesota law for a new election.

"We all want resolution," Coleman said. "We want to get it right. I'm a patient person."

Franken thinks the end is near.

"I think I'll be seated before the summer solstice," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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