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Ruling Favors Franken in Minnesota Senate Contest

The election was more than 20 weeks ago. The trial contesting its results lasted seven weeks. And a three-judge panel appointed by the state Supreme Court spent two-plus weeks wrestling with a decision.

But late Tuesday afternoon, it appeared that the U.S. Senate death match in Minnesota between Republican Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, comedian Al Franken, may be finally working its way to a conclusion.

In a ruling that favors Franken, the judges' panel essentially rejected the underlying argument in Coleman's appeal of a statewide recount that gave Franken a 225-vote victory. Coleman's case had hinged on the judges agreeing to count up to 1,300 absentee ballots that he argued were wrongly rejected. But they ordered only 400 absentee ballots opened and counted, and those ballots are expected to include many that Franken argued had been wrongly rejected by election officials.

The additional votes, which many are predicting would still leave Franken the winner, will be opened and counted on April 7.

During a call with reporters after the ruling, Franken lawyer Mark Elias said: "We are obviously pleased."

Coleman lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg said his client would appeal to the state Supreme Court. Ginsberg said the action "will result in thousands of Minnesota voters remaining disenfranchised." After the recount, Coleman's legal team had sought a more liberal interpretation of what constituted a legally-cast absentee ballot. But the judges appeared to hew strongly to standards used by both campaigns and county electoral officials during the six-week recount that preceded Coleman's appeal.

If the long-awaited decision ends up confirming Franken's win and Coleman eschews further appeals, the former Saturday Night Live comedian would become the Democrats' 59th senator in Washington, leaving his party just one vote shy of a filibuster-proof majority.

The election drama, which has captured national attention, has already secured its place in history as Minnesota's longest unresolved statewide contest ever.

And Minnesotans on both sides of the political aisle are saying, "Enough, already."

And they'd really prefer that national Republicans, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn, butt the heck out.

Cornyn, who chairs the committee charged with getting Republicans elected to the Senate, this week called on Coleman to pursue in federal court a battle that's become increasingly unpopular back home. He also promised "World War III" if Democrats try to seat Franken during such an appeal process, no matter its duration.

That has residents like Jim Ramlet in a not-so-Minnesota-nice frame of mind.

"At what point does Norm Coleman's appeal conflict with Minnesotans' right to be represented in Congress?" asked Ramlet, an actor and singer who lives in the Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley.

"There has to be some recourse for us, because we don't have our two senators as guaranteed by the Constitution," says Ramlet, who voted for Franken but doesn't count himself big fan.

It's that lack of enthusiasm for either candidate that made the race so close and its final result so elusive.

'Minnesotans Rejected Both Candidates'

The recount, automatically triggered by state law, gave Franken a 225-vote lead out of 2.9 million votes cast.

"There's a recount because a lot of Minnesotans rejected both candidates," says Thomas Horner, who heads a Minneapolis public relations firm and worked on Capitol Hill for the state's former GOP Sen. Dave Durenberger.

Minnesotans hold largely negative views of both Coleman and Franken because of their vitriolic campaigns, Horner says, the effects of which have been exacerbated by the drawn-out recount affair.

"Both of them have a lot of reputation to repair," Horner says.

However, so far there has seemed to be some acceptance of Coleman's right to play out his state appeals, including what many say they hope would be a final stop at the state Supreme Court.

"The order seems to be pretty absolute in its language that these are the only ballots in question, the only ballots left to be decided, and that counting them ought to put an end to the election," Horner says. "Politically this makes it very difficult for Coleman to take this issue into federal court, and to have a political career if he loses there."

But the loser — be it Coleman or Franken, depending on the absentee ballot count April 7 — would find his already shaky standing with the public severely undermined if Cornyn's advice were to be followed, state political experts say.

"There has been more and more irritation over what's going on, and if they tried going to the federal courts, people are really going to be upset," says Wyman Spano, director of the master's program in advocacy and political leadership at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

"I don't think Sen. Coleman would have a future career in the state of Minnesota if he goes in that direction," Spano says.

Behind the scenes, many Republican activists in Minnesota agree, predicting not only a Coleman loss in state courts but a heavy backlash if he's seen as pursuing national party interests rather than those of the folks back home.

The state Supreme Court decision, said one prominent Republican, would be seen as a reasonable place for a final decision to be made.

A Question For The High Court?

During court proceedings, Coleman's lawyers — including Ginsberg, who represented George W. Bush in the U.S. Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore that decided the 2000 presidential election — attempted to lay the groundwork for a federal appeal. As in Bush v. Gore, they raised the Constitutional issue of equal protection, suggesting that Coleman's rights may have been violated by the differing county standards used to count absentee ballots.

A long shot, to be sure. And one that Coleman has hinted he may not be willing to take. In Washington last week, Coleman said he doesn't expect his crusade to end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jennifer Armstrong, who lives in the northern Minnesota town of Gilbert, says that people are ready to move on.

But she is among many who say that the protracted election has not dimmed their faith in the state's electoral process.

"However muddy it might be in a historically tight race, the reality is we have a process," Armstrong says. "The process in and of itself, although in constant need of improvement, should be respected."

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