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As a coatless Norm Coleman trudged through the snow Thursday morning in St. Paul, making his way to the fourth day of the U.S. Senate recount trial, Al Franken had already begun a weeklong vacation in balmy Key West.
"I'm here. I'm accessible. I care," Coleman said as he headed for his customary seat in the courtroom next to his lawyers.
Since the trial began Monday, Coleman, a Republican, has been a fixture in the courthouse, holding brief news conferences, checking his voice mails during recesses and holding a food tray in a state cafeteria as he lunches with his attorneys. His presence as a three-judge panel determines his political fate -- along with appearances like his interview this week with conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity -- suggests Coleman has decided that earnest visibility may help him in the never-ending image duel against Democrat Franken.
It is a contrast with Franken, who has not attended the trial and who, according to his campaign, flew with his wife Wednesday for a Florida vacation. Campaign officials said Franken has not been glued to a video feed of the often-tedious trial, had no plans to attend and instead receives regular updates from his lawyers.
In a variety of subtle ways, the Franken campaign has tried to portray Franken's installation in the U.S. Senate as inevitable -- and the trial now taking place a formality that is Coleman's doing, not theirs. One of Franken's attorneys on Thursday referred to Franken as the "senator-elect." Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh added that "when people call Al 'Senator,' he corrects them. It happened all the time," she said, when Franken was recently in Washington, D.C.
Franken attorney Marc Elias, who has gained a reputation for his frequent and lengthy press briefings, was uncharacteristically at a loss for words Thursday when asked whether Coleman's presence was helping his cause. "I don't think I have really a reaction one way or another," he said.
"Obviously, it's former Senator Coleman's trial and he's certainly appropriately here," Elias said during a mid-morning break, moments before Coleman ambled by. "I don't think there's any reason why Senator-elect Franken would need to be here, but that's a personal decision."
For Coleman, there are risks associated with attending the trial -- including being seen as someone who, after six years in the U.S. Senate, suddenly has a lot of spare time.
"He believes it is an important issue for the state," said Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg, who often follows Coleman in the daily media briefings to discuss the trial's legal nuances. "He's interested in it." There are no plans, Ginsberg added, to call Coleman as a witness.
"He will be doing other stuff. He won't be here every day," said Ginsberg.
But Coleman is not shy about pointing out who is not at the trial. "I'm not afraid to talk to reporters. I'm not hiding from the media -- here I am," said Coleman, wearing a dark suit and looking less physically drained than he had in recent months. "When was the last time you asked [Franken] a question? When's anybody asked him a question?"
'He's really excited'
Other than a brief statement outside his Minneapolis home on Jan. 5 when the state Canvassing Board announced he had won the most votes in the administrative recount, Franken has not held a press event in Minnesota. He did attend President Obama's inauguration last week in Washington and while in the nation's capital gave several interviews.
The Franken family's Washington trip, which included son Joe and daughter Thomasin, included a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser and visits with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. McIntosh added that Franken also had a chance to chat with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Vice President Al Gore, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and that he went to dinner at the home of Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and fellow satirist.
"He's really excited to roll up his sleeves and get to work, and the trip to D.C. really heightened that for him," said McIntosh, who also said Franken was in touch with members of Minnesota's congressional delegation, and conferred with former Senate staff members to plan his transition to office in the event he is certified as senator.
Camera shy, for a moment
While Coleman is choosing to be visible at the trial, he is apparently sometimes too visible for comfort.
His almost every move in the Minnesota Judicial Center, where the trial is taking place, is recorded on a video camera by a Franken campaign worker. At one point Thursday, as he prepared to speak to a reporter about his attending the trial, Coleman waited in an alcove and explained he wanted to talk without being recorded by his opponent.
On Wednesday, as he held a brief news conference, Coleman was also asked why he was spending so much time at the trial since he had just been hired as a consultant by the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group that Coleman has in the past accepted fees to speak before.
"I did a national conference call at lunch [Wednesday for the coalition]," Coleman explained later. "I'm a consultant. I have certain speeches planned and trips planned. I have the opportunity to be here and still consult with this group."
Staff writer Larry Oakes contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388