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Minnesota U.S. Senate race a 'nail-biter'

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news Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Update 11:05 p.m.

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ST. PAUL - Challenger Al Franken kept U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman watching the election returns Tuesday night as the two battled in Minnesota's closely watched Senate race.

Both candidates braced for a long night, as they traded leads in early ballot returns.

Coleman led his Democratic opponent 644,708 (42 percent) to 624,522 (41 percent) with 57 percent of precincts reporting. The Independence Party's Dean Barkley trailed with 236,678 votes (16 percent) in those preliminary results.

Republicans liked Coleman's chances.

"The marquee (race) of the evening is going to be Norm's re-election," state GOP Chairman Ron Carey said.

The Franken campaign was optimistic, spokesman Andy Barr said early in the night.

"We're going to be up late, so it's going to be a close race," Barr said. "But we're feeling good so far."

Barkley, who had trailed significantly in recent polls, hoped for an upset.

"We'll see what happens," he said as early polls showed him behind. "Obviously it's uphill right now."

While the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chairman said the fact that his party's Barack Obama won the presidential contest would help Franken, he, too, predicted it would be a long night.

"The U.S. Senate race will be a nail-biter and could be decided the people who are literally still in line at this time to vote," Chairman Brian Melendez said.

Minnesotans who faced an onslaught of negative campaign advertising in recent weeks flocked to the polls to settle Minnesota's most high-profile contest - and one of the most-watched in the country.

Coleman and Franken, who had spent an estimated $40 million between them, entered Election Day trading small leads in independent polls. Neither could establish an edge, leaving them in a virtual tie in the closing days of a long campaign.

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The race, rife with nasty campaign advertisements from both candidates as well as outside groups, got increasingly ugly in the closing weeks. Coleman's campaign said in mid-October it was ending its negative ads, and later filed a campaign complaint alleging Franken included false statements about the senator in two television advertisements. An administrative law judge Monday threw out half of the complaint, but agreed to hear arguments on the remainder of the complaint today.

In the campaign's last week, Coleman was dogged by allegations in two lawsuits claiming a wealthy Coleman friend tried to funnel $100,000 of corporate funds to the senator through a firm that contracts with his wife.

Coleman said the allegations were false and described them as a last-minute attack by Franken. The Democrat insisted he had nothing to do with the allegations and said it was Coleman's problem.

Barkley hoped the nasty Coleman-Franken exchanges would benefit him.

Besides the three major candidates, voters also could choose from Charles Aldrich of the Libertarian Party or the Constitution Party's James Niemackl. Neither ran a visible statewide campaign.

Coleman's re-election theme was that he has a record of accomplishment in the Senate as well as the experience and temperament required to work with both Republicans and Democrats.

"It's not what you talk about, it's what you do," he said.

Franken often repeated his campaign mantra that he would fight for middle-class Minnesotans in the Senate and that Coleman had sided with corporate interests and the unpopular Bush administration.

"I want to act, that's why I'm running for Senate," Franken said. "But it's about who you're acting on behalf of."

A Republican in a traditionally Democratic-leaning state, Coleman was seeking another six-year term. The first-term senator entered this year's contest familiar with unpredictable elections, both as victor and loser.

Then a two-term St. Paul mayor, Coleman ran for governor in 1998 and ended up a victim of Jesse Ventura's third-party election surprise. Coleman returned to the ballot in 2002 as the GOP Senate candidate, having been the Bush administration's preferred candidate.

Coleman was challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone when, when less than two weeks before the election, Wellstone died in a campaign airplane crash. Former Vice President Walter Mondale was picked to run in place of Wellstone, and Coleman beat Mondale in the GOP-friendly 2002 mid-term election.

Coleman fashioned himself a moderate Republican who generally sided with the Bush administration and conservatives on judicial appointments and military policy, but was willing to buck his party when its policies were not in the best interest of Minnesota. An example, he said, was his votes to overturn Bush vetoes of a new farm bill.

In his first run for public office, Franken won over party activists and secured the Democratic endorsement. But in the process, he suffered a number of self-inflicted gaffes and may have underestimated the extent to which the GOP would try to build a case against him. They provided evidence he failed to provide worker's compensation insurance to employees and did not pay income taxes properly.

State Capitol reporter Don Davis and free-lance writer Julie Bartkey contributed to this story.

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