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Don Davis, Published November 05 2008

Coleman declares victory, but it could be December before Minnesotans find out winner of U.S. Senate seat

UPDATED 12:30 p.m.

ST. PAUL – U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman declared victory today. Challenger Al Franken said a recount would show who Minnesotans really want in the Senate. And Minnesotans who endured a lengthy U.S. Senate race now could be forced to wait into December, or longer, to see who actually won.

Republican Coleman collected 727 more votes than Democrat Al Franken, unofficial secretary of state returns show. But state law mandates a recount of each of the nearly 3 million ballots cast because the election is a virtual tie.

The final tally, before the recount, shows Coleman with 1,211,628 votes, for 42 percent. Franken followed with 1,210,901, which was 41.97 percent. The Independence Party’s Dean Barkley trailed with 437,308 votes, 15.16 per-cent of the vote.

Coleman, ending his first six-year term as senator, said late this morning that he will continue on as senator.

“I am humbled and grateful for the victory the voters gave us last night,” he said.

Not so fast, Franken said earlier. A mandated recount could show he won, he said, in part because Democrats have heard of some voting “irregularities” that could change the election’s outcome.

Coleman said Franken could waive the recount provision, which he can do under law, and save the taxpayers money.

The closeness of the race convinced The Associated Press to withdraw its early morning declaration of Coleman as the winner. The AP said it called the race prematurely. The AP and the secretary of state’s vote tallies differed by 156 votes.

The 0.03 percent margin between Franken and Coleman was well within the 0.5 percent difference that brings a statewide, and state funded, recount.

Franken said this morning that what he called “irregularities” may be enough to erase that margin in a recount.

“This race is too close to call,” Franken said at 6:40 a.m.

Coleman, on the other hand, said Minnesota elections are “clean and well-run. ... This election was no exception.”

“It is up to him whether it is worth the tax dollars,” Cole-man said about Franken’s decision not to waive a recount.

Even though he thinks the election was fair, the senator said he is assembling a team to deal with the issue. He promised to move on as sena-tor, leaving recount details up to his team.

“I look forward to continu-ing my work as Minnesota’s mayor in Washington,” the former St. Paul mayor said.

Coleman said he “was hopeful the healing process for Minnesota would have begun today,” but a recount could delay that for weeks. Franken and Coleman – and their supporters – wages one of the roughest campaigns in the country.

The senator said he would not have allowed the recount to go on had he been in Franken’s shoes. And while he said he did not expect to make a court challenge to the returns, he left the door open in case something unexpected crops up.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the recount will not begin until Nov. 19, at the earliest. And it could take weeks, longer if one or both candidates challenge the recount in court.

“How many courts, how many lawyers, how many challenges – we don’t know,” Ritchie said.

The Senate race was one of the most closely watched in the country, and lawyers and others with ties to the race are expected to pour into Minnesota to watch – and maybe challenge – the recount.

A Supreme Court recount this fall, with more than 400,000 votes, turned up just seven changes. Ritchie said that gave workers practice.

“There will be many more ballots and a lot more partisan participation in the process,” he said of the Senate recount. “So that will add a significant amount of time.”

He could hot estimate how long the recount will take.

Each ballot must be checked by hand, Ritchie said. His office will work with county and city officials.

“Every ballot will be examined for the voters’ intent,” the secretary said.

Franken said his campaign, and that of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, heard about several problems on Election Day that could lead to a change in the returns. The only reported irregularity he or his campaign’s attorney, David Lillehaug, would mention was a shortage of voter registration documents in Minneapolis.

This morning’s developments are fitting for a Senate race that was the costliest in the country, and the state’s history.

“At the end of the day, there is reason to believe the voice of the people will be heard,” Franken said.

He added: “This has been a long campaign. It is going to be a little longer.”

Lillehaug said several cases of irregularities had been reported, but said at least some probably have no merit.

Minnesota GOP Chairman Ron Carey praised Coleman and said “we’re confident the results will stand.”

The last major recount was in the 1962 governor’s race.

Much national attention is expected to shine on Minnesota during the recount, although not as much as after the 2000 presidential race.

“It won’t be Florida 2000, where the fate of the western world was at stake,” Ritchie said. “But it will be very high interest.”