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Republican Sen. Norm Coleman acknowledges supporters at a recent Senate debate. He is seeking a second, six-year term.

Senate race a nail-biter

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ST. PAUL -- U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken waited for election returns this morning in Minnesota's high-profile Senate race.

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Unofficial returns showed Coleman leading his Democratic opponent 1,013,646 (42.1 percent) to 1,004,493 (41.7 percent) with 86 percent of precincts reporting. The Independence Party's Dean Barkley trailed with 338,263 votes (15 percent).

Early today, political scientists began talking about the possibility of a recount in the Senate race. State law requires a mandatory recount if a race ends within 0.5 percentage points.

Both candidates braced for a long night, as they traded leads in early ballot returns. Around 11:30 p.m., Coleman and Franken told their supporters to maintain their optimism for another several hours.

"Give the folks a few more hours to finish counting, then we'll hope to give you six years of standing up for what's right," Franken told Democrats in St. Paul.

Franken said Minnesota sent a powerful message by helping to elect Barack Obama president.

"And tonight I'm humbled and I'm grateful and I can't wait to help President-elect Barack Obama get this country back on its feet again," Franken said before midnight.

Coleman was optimistic.

"There is more counting to be done," he told Republicans gathered in Bloomington. "Save your energy. Keep being hopeful. I'm feeling very good right now."

Barkley, who had trailed significantly in recent polls, had hoped for an election-night surprise, but just before midnight said he would eventually concede to the winner.

"This has been a great fight," Barkley said. "I'm proud of everything we've done."

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Brian Melendez said the fact that Barack Obama won the presidential contest would help Franken, he, too, predicted it would be a long night.

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.

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.

Meanwhile, most incumbent Minnesota U.S. representatives notched wins Tuesday.

Congressmen declared winners included:

l First-term Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, representing the southern counties, beat conservative Republican Brian Davis. With 93 percent of the vote counted, Walz led 189,977 (63 percent) to 99,585 (33 percent).

Walz said he thinks one reason he won was because "I did not get involved in partisan politics."

But, there was another reason he won so big: "There was a pretty good wind at Democrats' backs overall."

Democrats gained nearly 20 seats in the House, which Walz said should help Barack Obama to "have a vision."

As midnight neared, Walz said that it is time to change gears from the campaign.

"Tomorrow we put the politics away," he said. "We start working to find solutions."

l Democrat Collin Peterson of western Minnesota jumped to a large lead over second-time challenger Glen Menze. Peterson led 172,057 (72 percent) to 66,608 (28 percent) with 87 percent of precincts reporting, according to unofficial returns from the Secretary of State's office.

l The dean of Minnesota's congressional delegation, Democrat Jim Oberstar, in the northeast and east-central area, easily out-distanced political unknown Michael Cummins. With 58 percent of precincts reporting, Oberstar had 126,448 votes (66 percent), compared to 65,279 for Cummins (34 percent).

A race that gained national attention was closer than most. Republican Michele Bachmann appeared to be in good shape to keep her House seat. She held a lead with a 77 percent of the precincts reporting - 146,406 (47 percent) to El Tinklenberg's 134,282 (43 percent).

Wente and Davis work for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

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