A slugfest for nearly two years, Minnesota's U.S. Senate race headed into a new round Wednesday as the campaigns girded for an automatic statewide recount to determine if Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's bare lead over Democratic challenger Al Franken would stand.
Coleman declared himself the winner of Tuesday's election but Franken said he would let the recount play out, hoping it would erase the incumbent's 439-vote lead out of nearly 2.9 million ballots. State officials said the recount wouldn't start until mid-November and would likely take weeks.
"Yesterday the voters spoke. We prevailed," Coleman said Wednesday at a news conference. He noted Franken could opt to waive the recount.
"It's up to him whether such a step is worth the tax dollars it will take to conduct," Coleman said, telling reporters he would "step back" if he were in Franken's position. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said the recount would cost 3 cents per ballot, or almost $90,000.
As counties and Ritchie's office reconciled their unofficial vote totals Wednesday, Coleman's margin fluctuated but was at 475 votes Wednesday afternoon: Coleman had 1,211,520 votes, or 41.99 percent at that time, while Franken had 1,211,081 votes, or 41.98 percent.
Dean Barkley of the Independence Party was third with 15.16 percent.
State law provides for automatic recounts in races decided by a half-percentage point or less.
"We won't know for a little while who won the race, but at the end of the day we will know the voice of the electorate is clearly heard," Franken said Wednesday. "This has been a long campaign, but it is going to be a little longer before we have a winner."
Franken said his campaign was looking into reports of irregularities in Minneapolis where some voters had trouble registering, though he didn't elaborate.
"We'll all have to be vigilant and work together to complete this recount successfully," his attorney, David Lillehaug, said.
If he hangs on, Coleman would be among the Republicans who survived Democratic gains in Senate races nationwide. Democrats ousted two Republican incumbents and picked up three seats held by retiring GOP incumbents. Three other Republicans besides Coleman were trying to hang on in races too close to call.
Coleman said he'd hoped that "the healing process would begin today," but indicated he would nonetheless begin preparations for a second term.
"My focus from here on out is giving Minnesotans the leadership they deserve in these challenging times," Coleman said.
Ritchie, a Democrat, said a recount wouldn't begin until Nov. 19 and could stretch into December. It would involve hand counts by local election officials from around the state, and lawyers from both campaigns would be allowed to observe.
"No matter how fast people would like it, the emphasis is on accuracy," Ritchie said.
Ritchie's office ran a speedy recount in September of a close primary race for a Supreme Court seat. That took just three days, but Ritchie said the Senate race is different.
"Having a ton of lawyers and other partisans injected into the process, that will change the dynamics of it," Ritchie said.
Each ballot will be inspected manually. Ballots with improper or stray marks could be analyzed to determine voter intent, but partisan observers can challenge those they deem questionable. The five-member state canvassing board votes later on the challenged ballots.
One wildcard is the dropoff in voting detected between the presidential and Senate races: More than 25,000 voters in the presidential contest weren't recorded as voting for Senate.
Election experts said that recounts, even on a large scale, don't often reverse the initial vote count.
"They sometimes get closer," said Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston who studies elections and voting. "They just don't flip very much."
But it's not unheard of. In the 2004 governor's race in Washington state, the initial vote count put Republican Dino Rossi 261 votes ahead of Democrat Christine Gregoire.
A machine recount narrowed that margin further, finding a 42-vote Rossi win. After that, the state undertook a second, by-hand recount of ballots that gave the win to Gregoire by 129 votes. She was inaugurated soon after, but Republicans sued to overturn the results. The case dragged on until June, when a judge rejected Rossi's legal efforts.
Minnesota and Washington both use optical-scan ballots that voters mark by hand.
In the Minnesota recount, officials may in some cases have to attempt to divine the intention of voters who failed to properly mark their ballot.
"There are almost as many ways to mark a ballot as there are people marking them," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, an election reform project of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Minnesota's most notable election recount came in 1962, when DFLer Karl Rolvaag edged Republican Elmer Andersen by 91 votes - the closest governor's race ever in Minnesota. That recount wasn't completed until the following March.
The photo finish in this year's Senate race came after nearly two years of intense, sometimes bitter competition between Coleman, one of the state's most durable politicians, and Franken, who made his name as a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live."
The candidates spent $30 million attacking each other on the airwaves. Millions more poured into the race from national parties and outside groups, leaving both men with high negatives in voters' eyes.
An analysis of exit poll data showed Franken wasn't able to win over independent voters at the same rate as fellow Democrat Barack Obama, providing a clue as to why his race ended with such a tight margin.
The analysis found that about three-quarters of Obama voters also went for Franken, unless those Obama voters were self-described independents. Then the percentage dropped to about 60 percent. About a quarter of Obama's independents went for Barkley, and Coleman captured about 15 percent.
The actual votes showed that Franken failed to convert 362,000 Obama voters into his own. Coleman missed out on 64,000 votes attracted by the candidate atop his ticket, Republican John McCain.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)