Saturday, December 20, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. | Democrat Al Franken edged ahead of Republican incumbent Norm Coleman on Friday for the first time in Minnesota’s long-running U.S. Senate recount.

Mr. Franken opened up a slight lead on the fourth day of a state Canvassing Board meeting to decide the fate of hundreds of disputed ballots.

The change was notable because Mr. Coleman led Mr. Franken in election night returns and also held a 188-vote lead before the board took up challenged ballots. But its significance was limited, with the possibility the lead could change again before the long recount ends.

The board had several hundred remaining challenges to resolve, with a goal of doing so by Friday. Both Mr. Coleman and Mr. Franken are also waiting to see how much they gain from about 5,000 challenges that they withdrew, and the board won’t allocate those until Monday.

The outcome of the recount also depends on an estimated 1,600 absentee ballots that were improperly rejected. The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that those ballots must be counted, and set a Dec. 31 deadline for counties to work with the candidates to identify and count them.

The high court ruling virtually guaranteed that the recount would spill into the new year. With Congress set to convene Jan. 6, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said his staff was researching the possibility of a temporary appointment. But Mr. Pawlenty said it was unlikely he would do so because he expected the recount would be resolved by then.

The ballot that put Mr. Franken in the lead came from Rochester, where a voter’s mark for Mr. Franken filled not just his oval but a good chunk of territory next to it. A challenge from the Coleman campaign was rejected.

Once in the lead, Mr. Franken was certain to expand it because almost all of the remaining challenges before the board were from Mr. Coleman - and the board was rejecting most challenges. By late morning, he led by 275 votes.

Marc Elias, Mr. Franken’s attorney, said the Democrat had expected to take the lead, and that he was winning even if the numbers kept fluctuating.

Mr. Coleman’s spokesman Mark Drake said Mr. Franken’s lead was temporary.

“We encourage everyone to just hang on until the process is finished,” Mr. Drake said. “When it is finished, Norm Coleman will still lead, and we believe, be re-elected to the United States Senate.”

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