Surrounded by Somali immigrants, veterans, his family and an array of Republican stalwarts, Sen. Norm Coleman formally launched his reelection bid in St. Paul on Wednesday, declaring himself to be a "voice of optimism in cynical times."

In his speech, Coleman declared the themes of his campaign, casting himself as "Minnesota's Mayor in Washington" and reminding listeners of his 32 years of public service, including posts as solicitor general and two-term mayor of St. Paul.

Once the hand-picked Senate candidate of the Bush White House, Coleman called himself a "proud Republican" but was careful to note times he has broken with President Bush. He claimed to be "a uniter" by pattern and temperament. As mayor, he said, "I simply brought people together to work very hard. ... We didn't point fingers, we joined hands."

Coleman's leading rival, DFL Senate candidate Al Franken, has criticized Coleman's ties to Bush. On Wednesday, Franken campaign manager Andy Barr said Coleman will not be able to distance himself. "Where we are today, how we got there, a lot of it is about Coleman being a rubber stamp for George Bush," Barr said.

Coleman brushed off challengers' criticisms as he talked to reporters on Wednesday after his speech. "This race is about tomorrow," he said. "Al's running against yesterday."

Coleman said that while he had "raised the partisan flag, absolutely," he had always done so in a way that allowed him to continue working with the other side.

"The Senate is not just a debating society," he said. "In the end, you're measured by what you do." Coleman pointed to his work with Minnesota's Somali immigrant community, veterans and international adoptions, as well as his role in speeding federal funds for the rebuilding of the Interstate 35W bridge and in work on renewable energy, college Pell grants, low-income heating assistance and an increased minimum wage.

Coleman has also come under fire from critics for, among other things, his continued support of the Iraq war and extension of the Bush tax cuts.

A vulnerable incumbent

Lobbing his own volley at Franken, Coleman said that the art of the political critique was in "how you do it. I don't do it with expletives." As a satirist and comedian, Franken has often used blue language in his frequent broadsides against Republicans.

Making a bid to extend his appeal beyond the shrinking numbers of self-identified Republicans, Coleman said he had chosen a path of public service that was "plain, not Hollywood; peaceful, not divisive; generous, not mean-spirited, and just, not political. Isn't that what we all want? Republicans, Democrats and Independents?"

Early in his tenure, Coleman voted with the Bush administration as much as 98 percent of the time, and in 2004 was called "one of the leading voices of the Republican Party" by party leaders, although he has moderated both his ratings and his rhetoric in recent years.

Coleman remains a vulnerable incumbent, political observers say, in large measure because of the anti-Republican sentiment inspired by an unpopular president and a war that has endured five years and taken 4,000 American lives.

"The war is more unpopular in Minnesota than nationally," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at  Carleton College in Northfield and a veteran observer of U.S. Senate races. "That puts Norm Coleman in a difficult spot."

Race is rated a tossup

The Minnesota race has become increasingly competitive as the field has narrowed. DFL candidate Mike Ciresi's recent withdrawal from the race left Franken the front-runner. Also still seeking the DFL nomination are Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Darryl Stanton and Dick Franson.

With Ciresi out of the race, the Washington-based Cook Political Report, which had rated the race as leaning Republican, moved it firmly into the tossup category.

Jennifer Duffy, who rates the races for Cook, said Coleman is reverting to the more centrist message displayed in his initial 2002 run.

"It's not that much of a stretch for him," she said. Like many freshmen, she said, he started out voting the party line. "He has moved to the center but he also does have a voting record this time and that will be used for and against him."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288