- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 4, 2009

ST. PAUL, Minn. | He lost the 1998 Minnesota governor’s race to a former pro wrestler, Jesse Ventura, and this week conceded his U.S. Senate seat to a former “Saturday Night Live” comedian, Al Franken.

But don’t write Republican Norm Coleman off yet.

It’s a testament to Mr. Coleman’s political durability that just days after he conceded the race and gave Democrats a 60-seat Senate majority, many GOP insiders consider him an automatic front-runner if he enters the 2010 race to replace Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“He’d be the 800-pound gorilla in the Republican field, no doubt about it,” said Annette Meeks, a former officer with the Minnesota Republican Party and a one-time aide to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Franken is expected to be sworn in Tuesday, ending Mr. Coleman’s Senate tenure after just one term.

One former Coleman adviser said there is already talk in state political circles that the former senator has had preliminary discussions about running for governor in 2010.

“My understanding is that he is actively exploring with the Republican faithful what his prospects are,” said Tom Horner, a public relations executive who advised Mr. Coleman in his failed 1998 gubernatorial bid.

Pundits warned for months that Mr. Coleman’s lengthy legal challenge could damage his political career beyond repair. It also threatened to force a tough call on Mr. Pawlenty, whose May announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election cleared the way for a possible 2012 presidential bid.

Mr. Coleman conceded this week after the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously ruled for Mr. Franken in the epic eight-month recount battle following last November’s vote.

But several Republicans argued that Mr. Coleman actually improved his standing with the GOP base by fighting to the end, even as Mr. Franken’s victory seemed increasingly likely.

“Had he called it quits earlier, I think a lot of Republicans would have been upset,” said Andy Brehm, who was Mr. Coleman’s Senate press secretary from 2002 to 2005.

It was a congenial, rested, practically cheerful Mr. Coleman who appeared before cameras Tuesday to concede. He demurred on questions about his political future - but distinctly did not shut the door on a gubernatorial race. Several close associates said they believe he’s genuinely undecided.

Even Mr. Franken complimented his rival on his gracious concession call.

Republicans note Mr. Coleman would bring name recognition, proven fundraising ability and tested campaigning skills to a wide-open GOP gubernatorial field in 2010, in a primary so far dominated by newcomers.

“I do think he’d be the front-runner,” said Brian Sullivan, a Republican National Committee member from Minnesota and a major party donor.

While Mr. Coleman brings certain assets, he would also face challenges. Besides possible voter resentment over the lengthy Senate recount, Mr. Coleman’s name appears in a Texas civil lawsuit that charges a friend and political contributor funneled at least $75,000 to the then-senator through an insurance company that employed Mr. Coleman’s wife. Neither Mr. Coleman nor his wife are defendants in the lawsuit.

Almost a dozen Republicans have said they are running or considering running since Mr. Pawlenty announced he wouldn’t seek a third term. Most are more conservative than Mr. Coleman, a former Democrat who embraced a moderate image in his 2008 race and voted for the $700 billion bank bailout weeks before the election.

“That probably didn’t endear him to some fiscal conservatives,” said Ron Carey, who just stepped down as state GOP chairman. “There’s certainly an influential segment of the party that wants to have a little bit more purity on some of these issues.”

Mr. Carey agreed that Mr. Coleman would be a formidable gubernatorial candidate, but said many in the GOP are ready for a fresh, younger face to lead the party.

Mr. Coleman, 59, worked for the Minnesota attorney general’s office for 15 years before his election as St. Paul mayor in 1993 as a Democrat. He switched parties in 1997, and was steamrolled in the 1998 governor’s race by the Ventura phenomenon. But he rebounded in 2002, winning his Senate seat in a turbulent race marked by the plane crash death of incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone, who was replaced on the ballot by former Vice President Walter Mondale.

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