The finish line for phase one of Minnesota's Senate recount drew within sight Thursday, with the hand review of 2.9 million ballots due for completion before the weekend.
For the second straight day, there were skirmishes over a batch of potentially missing ballots from a Minneapolis precinct and a sizable drawdown in previously challenged ballots.
Republican Sen. Norm Coleman withdrew 650 ballot challenges, matching a gesture a day earlier by Democrat Al Franken aimed at shortening the length of the recount.
When the votes were first counted, Coleman led Franken by 215 votes. By late Thursday, that was down to 205 when the same precincts are compared using Nov. 4 figures and those tallied during the recount.
The campaigns have challenged more than 6,500 ballots during the recount, but both sides have acknowledged that many of the challenges lack merit. Coleman's step means both campaigns have at least started to cull challenges so the state's Canvassing Board won't waste time when it meets starting Dec. 16 to settle the recount.
Coleman's attorney, Fritz Knaak, said Coleman himself directed that his campaign follow suit after Franken withdrew 633 challenges on Wednesday. "We think what we got yesterday was a gesture. We want to respond and be positive," Knaak said.
A day earlier, Knaak had said the Republican probably wouldn't withdraw any challenges until after the recount finishes on Friday.
But the chances of a tidy finish to the recount took a hit Thursday when the Secretary of State's office gave the city of Minneapolis an open-ended extension in order to locate about 130 ballots that were apparently counted on Election Day but went missing and weren't included in the recount.
On the challenges, Knaak repeated Thursday that Coleman's team wants to get together with Franken's to agree on terms for what should be withdrawn - even suggesting lawyers for the two sides could review challenges jointly and agree on which should be dismissed.
Franken's attorney, Marc Elias, said there's no reason the campaigns can't independently dismiss their challenges. But he added: "If it will help reduce challenges, I will meet with them."
But the high number of challenges clouds that margin. The Coleman campaign has issued 114 more challenges, and the Franken campaign said Thursday that by its own count the Democrat holds a tiny lead.
Franken's self-calculated lead also depends on the city of Minneapolis locating the pile of missing ballots, which come from one University of Minnesota-area precinct. The Franken campaign set off major alarm bells about the incident, with Elias urging city officials to "move heaven and earth" to find them.
"The outcome of the election might be at stake," Elias said.
Minneapolis elections director Cindy Reichert said she believed the ballots are in an envelope marked "1/5" and that an investigation so far has shown that all chain of custody rules were followed. She said she believed they'd be found.
"We're in the process of looking under everything," Reichert said. "We're not sure where it could have gone."
Knaak said the Franken campaign was overreacting and shouldn't assume there are ballots to be found.
"We do not know that there are any ballots missing, and it is premature and simply irresponsible to suggest that they are," Knaak said.
He further complained about an official from Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's office appearing at a news conference in Minneapolis with the city's Democratic mayor about the ballot search.
Elias said the Franken campaign has heard reports of missing ballots in other parts of the state, but none that approached the number in Minneapolis. He wouldn't speculate what kind of legal steps the Franken campaign might take if ballots aren't found and the discrepancy can't be explained.
In a written statement, Franken campaign spokesman Andy Barr said the matter was getting the attention it deserved.
"The secretary of state's office has rightly recognized the importance of this matter by giving Minneapolis officials the time they need to locate this envelope," Barr said. "Simply put, these ballots must be found."