updated 4/1/2009 11:39:11 AM ET 2009-04-01T15:39:11

An attorney for Republican Norm Coleman is warning of an appeal after the latest court ruling in the still unsettled Minnesota Senate race.

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The three judges hearing Coleman's lawsuit on Tuesday ordered further review of 400 unopened absentee ballots in the race, far fewer than the former Republican senator had asked to be counted. The ruling dealt a crippling blow to Coleman's legal challenge against Democrat Al Franken's lead.

Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg said the small amount of remaining ballots made it difficult for Coleman, who had asked to include 1,360 ballots, to erase Franken's current 225-vote lead. Within two hours of the ruling, Ginsberg argued that the panel's ruling tolerated differing standards from county to county between the general election and the recount.

"You never give up hope but it becomes a much longer shot," said Ginsberg, who was part of the legal team that helped George W. Bush win the presidency in the 2000 Florida recount battle.

The judges were ruling in an election challenge filed by Coleman after a recount showed Franken with a 225-vote lead.

A Franken victory in the Senate race would make it easier for Democrats to advance President Barack Obama's agenda.

With Franken, the Democratic caucus would have 59 seats, including two independents, just one short of the 60 senators needed to overcome filibusters by the Republicans, a legislative maneuver to prevent measures from coming to a vote.

Video: Minnesota Senate race still undecided The breakdown of the unopened absentee ballots is unknown, but it appears to favor Franken. His team had submitted almost 150 ballots, while Coleman offered 125. Fifty other ballots were sought by both, and the rest did not appear on either candidate's list.

A lawyer for Franken, the former "Saturday Night Live" comic, said he was not worried about others trying to stop Franken from being seated after appeals were exhausted.

"We're going to take this one step at a time," attorney Marc Elias said. "What matters is what happens in the court in Minnesota and then in the Senate itself."

The judges' ruling was closest to what Franken wanted. Coleman, in arguing for his ballot inclusions, had asked the court to presume voters did things right.

But the three-judge panel said it "carefully reviewed each absentee ballot on a ballot-by-ballot basis to determine whether sufficient individualized evidence had been presented" for a closer look. The judges also warned: "To be clear, not every absentee ballot identified in this order will ultimately be opened and counted."

The ballots were ordered to be examined April 7.

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

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