Franken Has the Lead, but Coleman Has His Day in Court

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By Chris Cillizza And Paul Kane
Monday, January 26, 2009

The longest-running Senate campaign in the nation heads into the home stretch this week. We think.

Today in St. Paul, Minn., a three-judge panel will kick off a trial featuring Norm Coleman, the incumbent Republican senator who, after an initial election-night count showed him ahead by a few hundred votes, finished 225 votes behind Democrat Al Franken when a full hand recount concluded earlier this month.

But the legal battle is just one piece of a multi-front campaign that continues three months after Minnesota residents cast 2.9 million votes. Each candidate continues to run a full-throttle public relations effort to make voters believe that he is the rightful victor.

Early on, the Franken campaign was more aggressive, flying in Washington lawyer Marc Elias to basically live out of a hotel room while running the legal effort.

Now, Coleman's campaign has picked up the slack. Benjamin Ginsberg, the renowned lawyer who led the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign's Florida recount effort, has landed in Minnesota. "Franken's lead is ephemeral at best. It's like a sand castle with the tide coming in," Ginsberg told The Fix.

Coleman has also hired Gail Gitcho, whose job is to work with the national media covering the trial. Ginsberg worked with Gitcho on the Republican presidential campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

The trial of Coleman's challenge will be overseen by judges appointed by Democratic, Republican and independent governors of Minnesota. Coleman's attorneys are arguing that the canvassing board that oversaw the hand recount established no uniform standard for reviewing the nearly 13,000 absentee ballots rejected on Election Day. The board ultimately allowed in 933 such ballots, which tilted the race from a jump ball to a 225-vote edge for Franken.

Coleman hopes an additional 3,000 to 5,000 rejected absentee ballots will be allowed into the count, which could flip the race back to him. The lawyers also contend that this trial phase will allow them to fully litigate other issues, including Coleman's contention that more than 100 votes from a Franken-friendly precinct in Minneapolis were counted twice. Last night, the Coleman campaign even released a new commercial, via the Web, urging Franken to support Coleman's latest legal effort.

Meanwhile, the candidates got into the act of trying to create the aura of inevitability, with both men showing up at the Capitol last week.

Franken met with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) in his Capitol offices Wednesday to discuss his potential committee assignments and the economic stimulus plan. "Welcome to Washington," Reid told Franken after reporters were allowed into the meeting.

Hours earlier, Coleman pleaded his case to Senate Republicans in a closed-door luncheon, laying out the trial process and asserting the strength of his argument.

Coleman won reassurances from his once -- and possibly future -- colleagues that they would not allow Democrats to seat Franken until the legal contest is resolved. "It remains the view of every single member of my [Republican] conference that the Minnesota Senate race will indeed be decided in Minnesota and not in Washington," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

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