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Franken Now Leads In Minn. Senate Recount

Things are suddenly looking up for Al Franken - for now, at least.

For the first time since the votes were counted on Election Night, and through more than six weeks of a slogging recount, the Minnesota Democrat on Friday forged ahead of Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in their epic Senate battle.

The question now: Whether that lead will hold, with so many potential shifts still remaining before the new Congress convenes Jan. 6.

Franken led Coleman by 262 votes as the state Canvassing Board wrapped up four days of work resolving hundreds of disputed ballots.

"At the end of the day, we're leading because more people cast lawful ballots for Al Franken than cast them for Norm Coleman," said Franken's attorney, Marc Elias. "And there's no amount of strategy that can change that."

But major issues remain in the race, including some 5,000 withdrawn challenges that won't be allocated to the candidates until next week. Coleman's attorney, Tony Trimble, said those could throw the lead back to the Republican.

"We'll let them enjoy the weekend," Trimble said. When votes from those challenges are restored, he said, "You'll see our ship come in."

There's reason for him to be optimistic. Franken withdrew more challenges before this week, leaving a larger pool of potential votes for Coleman in the next stage. There are 400 to 500 more ballots where Coleman could find votes compared with the batch available to Franken.

The big unknown is how many of the withdrawals were an attempt by each campaign to stifle an opponent's vote - rather than an attempt to get one for themselves off an unclear ballot. Among those the board considered, Franken had far more challenges where he secured an extra vote for himself than Coleman.

In addition, the state Supreme Court has ordered the counting of an estimated 1,600 incorrectly rejected absentee ballots - which won't be known until Dec. 31, and brings the potential for another messy, time-consuming process.

Then there's the latest legal challenge from Coleman's campaign - a request to the state Supreme Court Friday to take steps to keep duplicate ballots out of the count. At the end of the day Friday, the high court scheduled oral arguments on that matter for next Tuesday afternoon, the day before Christmas Eve.

Before the five-member canvassing board began reviewing challenges Friday, it rejected a request from the Coleman campaign to disqualify hundreds of those ballots, which the campaign argued had been counted twice.

G. Barry Anderson, a Supreme Court justice serving on the board, said the issue was not the board's to decide.

"While I think there is a serious issue here, the location, extent and remedy lie elsewhere," Anderson said.

Aside from urging the state Supreme Court to block the possibly double-counted ballots, the Coleman campaign also asked justices to order that the issue of duplicate ballots be handled in each county as part of the process to identify erroneously rejected absentees.

Trimble said the campaign has estimated Franken could see a net gain of 50 from the duplicate ballots. "For them, in a close race, that's like gold," Trimble said.

Elias said the Coleman campaign has over-emphasized the duplicate issue and said the petition showed it was worried about falling behind.
By Associated Press Writer Brian Bakst; AP Writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report

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