In a new television ad and on the campaign trail Saturday, Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman blamed his DFL challenger, Al Franken, for orchestrating an "11th-hour attack" connected to a lawsuit alleging that a top Coleman donor funneled money to Coleman's wife. That prompted a heated denial from Franken, who said: "Senator Coleman looks the people of Minnesota in the eye and lies."
Coleman offered no proof Saturday of a connection between the lawsuit, which was filed by a Republican businessman in Texas last week, and either Franken or anyone in the Democratic Party.
But in a TV ad that began airing Saturday, Coleman, seated on a couch next to his wife, Laurie, looks directly into the camera and says, "This time Al Franken's crossed the line. ... I'm fair game for his ugly smears. My wife and family are not."
Within an hour, Franken abruptly canceled an appearance at a campaign rally in Minneapolis to hustle over to a DFL Party news conference, where he denied the accusations and called Coleman's remarks "insulting to voters."
"I'm being blamed for crossing a line and I didn't do a thing," Franken said. "And our campaign didn't do a thing."
Barkley weighs in
Meanwhile, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley called the latest round of accusations and denials that are suddenly dominating the Senate race "a fitting end to the dirtiest campaign in Minnesota history."
The lawsuit filed Monday alleges that a top Coleman donor, businessman Nasser Kazeminy, steered $75,000 from a Houston company that he has a majority interest in to a Minneapolis insurance company that employs Laurie Coleman as an independent contractor.
A second lawsuit was filed Friday by minority shareholders in the Houston marine company. Both lawsuits allege Kazeminy said he wanted to provide financial help to the Colemans through an insurance-consulting arrangement between Deep Marine Technology Inc. and Hays Insurance Co. Kazeminy has not commented on the lawsuits.
One of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit filed Friday, FLI Deep Marine, is an investment fund operated by First Long Island Investors of Jericho, N.Y. Robert Rosenthal, chairman and chief executive of the investment firm, referred questions about the lawsuit to his attorney, Anthony Paduano, who could not be reached.
Rosenthal is registered as a Republican, according to New York state voting records, but federal campaign records show he gave $2,750 to Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in Florida, Michigan, North Dakota and Montana between 2000 and 2005. He also gave $1,000 to a Republican senator in 1998.
In statements to reporters, Coleman has repeatedly denied the allegations in the lawsuit.
Back into nasty turf
The latest turn of events has forced Coleman and Franken to resume denouncing each other, altering their plans to close out the final days of the campaign with a more positive, feel-good glow to win over persuadable voters.
On Saturday afternoon, Coleman hopped back on the "Hope Express," his rolling, three-car caravan that has been criss-crossing the state for days in a hunt for votes that could help him buck a wave of anticipated Democratic turnout for the presidential race.
Earlier in the day, Coleman was buoyed by about 100 supporters who greeted him outside the Morning Glory Cafe in Rosemount. Voter Rose Marie Ratzlaff said the controversy didn't shake her confidence in the senator.
"I think it's dirty politics," Ratzlaff said. "It's not going to change my decision."
In Northfield, at Carleton College, a lively band wailed while a crowd of more than 150 supporters gathered for a combined DFL ticket rally featuring Franken.
Franken's massive blue, white and gold campaign bus has become a featured attraction at campaign stops across the state, pulling up at an Elks Lodge in Owatonna, coffee shops in Hibbing, and colleges across the southern belt in an effort to reach even traditionally Republican corners of the state.
Echoing the message of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, Franken has said his campaign is about the middle class and "taking back this country."
"I've never voted for a Democrat, but they have the right message this time," said Noel Quale, 60, a real estate agent in Owatonna, barely restraining a whoop as Franken started to speak to the packed Elks Lodge.
As he has throughout the campaign, Barkley spent the bulk of his week dialing for dollars and using the news media as an amplifier, rather than pressing the flesh with voters.
"I'm Don Quixote, trying to change the world," he told a couple of dozen students and staff members at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul earlier in the week.
On Saturday, Barkley, who has raised less than $200,000 in a race where more than $40 million has been spent, used a precious afternoon to hang out in front of St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, greeting college hockey-goers as they entered.
Barkley, who continues to run a distant third in polls, said he was staying out of the lawsuit fracas and hoped voters might reward him for that.
"It's almost unbelievable," he said as he shook hands. "Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it has. They ought to be apologizing for what they've put Minnesotans through."