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Franken-Coleman race remains in question

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount became even murkier Monday as both candidates could claim the lead.

Democratic challenger Al Franken took his first lead in the raw vote, but two heavily Republican Twin Cities-area counties have yet to begin their recounts. Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman stretched his lead in a more accurate way to look at the recount totals.

The secretary of state's office reported Monday night that 91 percent of the ballots had been recounted.

With a Friday deadline looming, officials at most of the state's 107 recount sites -- counties and some larger cities -- had completed their part of the 2.9-million-ballot recount. Even with the count nearing an end, the Franken and Coleman campaigns were unable to look at firm vote tallies because their supporters have challenged 5,943 ballots.

Ballots challenged by one campaign or the other - ballots for which supporters say the voters' picks cannot be determined - will not be counted for another two weeks, leaving vote totals in doubt.

The returns showed Coleman's lead over Franken at 344, compared to 292 during the Thanksgiving break. The lead was figured based on changes discovered in the recount that were applied to Coleman's 215-vote margin before the recount started.

Franken leads Coleman 1,105,030 to 1,100,922 in the raw vote, but observers expect the final numbers - once the challenged ballots are counted -- to be within hundreds. Scott and Wright counties are two big GOP areas where ballots await the recount.

Two counties started their recount Monday, and another four begin the hand count Wednesday.

As the historic hand tally entered its final week, Franken's top attorney said a court challenge or a decision by the U.S. Senate are possible routes it may consider if the campaign believes not all valid ballots are considered. Mark Elias said the campaign still is concerned about improperly rejected absentee ballots and misplaced votes not being included in a final tally.

Elias said contesting the election result in court or turning to the Senate, which has the authority to seat its own members, are "options that remain open down the road."

The Coleman campaign said it is troubling that Franken already is talking about possible Senate involvement.

Coleman spokesman Mark Drake said: "One thing has become abundantly clear: The Franken campaign intends to drag this process out until they can change the outcome and force an Al Franken win, even if it means overturning the will and intent of the Minnesota voters."

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie set a Friday deadline for all ballots to be recounted. But Minnesotans still will not know for weeks whether Coleman or Franken will be their next senator. That is because the state Canvassing Board is scheduled to meet for three days beginning Dec. 16 to settle ballots that were challenged by observers for either Franken or Coleman during the recount. And court hearings could last long after that meeting.

Elias said the Franken campaign has started reviewing copies of ballots it challenged and plans to announce this week it is withdrawing some challenges.

Coleman spokesman Tom Erickson said the campaign is ready to discuss removing challenged ballots with Franken's team. He said Coleman attorneys still are reviewing their challenged ballots.

In a separate ballot issue last week, the state Canvassing Board rejected a request by Franken's campaign to include improperly rejected absentee ballots in the recount. However, it remains unclear how rejected absentee ballots will be handled.

While it turned down Franken's request, the board asked the attorney general's office for guidance on what should be done with an estimated 12,000 rejected absentee ballots.

Canvassing Board members will not take up the issue this week, Ritchie's office said.

It is not clear how many absentee ballots were wrongly rejected because not all counties have provided information that would help determine that, Elias said. As of Monday, the campaign had not received rejected absentee ballot information from nine counties, including Carlton and Dakota. St. Louis County had not offered its data, although the city of Duluth did.

The campaign, which won a lawsuit to get absentee ballot data from Ramsey County, may consider further legal action, if needed, to get the remaining counties to comply with its request, Elias said.