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WASHINGTON - Since losing his Senate re-election bid to Democrat Al Franken, Norm Coleman has remade himself, carving a niche as a go-to-guy for the Republican Party.
From the top of the ticket down to state-level activism, the former U.S. senator and St. Paul mayor is at the center of the party's fundraising and campaign strategy in 2012.
Coleman is leading efforts to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in the era of unlimited corporate and union donations, as chairman of the American Action Network and its super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund. He also is a key foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
"He's become an operative," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "With the amount of money he spends and directs ... he's become a mini-Karl Rove."
The American Action Network plans to make a big splash at the upcoming Republican National Convention, with rock concerts and a series of panel discussions featuring big-name Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
Although he has remained active, Coleman says he has enjoyed the break from daily politicking that came with his 2008 Senate loss and the ensuing recount and legal battle.
"I don't wake up in the morning ... and worry [about] who's trying to kill me politically," he said.
That dynamic might already be changing.
The convention is just the start of efforts that could propel Coleman back into the national spotlight, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
"He's in the middle of the campaign to hold the House, win the Senate" and take back the presidency, said Norquist, a longtime acquaintance. "Norm Coleman's participation is a sign that says: 'Here be grownups. This is real stuff.'"
Coleman co-founded the American Action Network in 2010 as an organization promoting limited government, lower taxes and strong national defense. The Washington-based group has attracted critics and scrutiny in its brief lifespan.
Two watchdog groups, Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, have filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service, claiming the American Action Network is violating tax law -- and jeopardizing its nonprofit status -- by spending most of its money on politics.
The American Action Network is organized under the tax code as a nonprofit that doesn't have to disclose its donors and can accept unlimited amounts of money.
Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said the group and similar organizations are "vehicles for wealthy individuals or corporations to make very large donations to influence national elections."
Congressional Democrats have made an issue of the unchecked political spending.
During the 2010 election season, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., pressed the group to reveal its donors after the American Action Network began airing ads in his First Congressional District. Coleman declined.
The IRS has shown interest in changing rules for politically active tax-exempt organizations but has yet to act.
Coleman has repeatedly dismissed the complaints as meritless and politically based, and the group has no plans to scale back fundraising or ad campaigns.
The American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund have already reserved at least $6 million in television time to run candidate advocacy ads in U.S. House races this fall.
With the help of donors such as billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the spending in this election cycle could eventually top the $21 million the American Action Network spent on campaign ads in 2010. Coleman and Adelson sit on the board of another major donor, the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Contributors place their trust in Coleman, essentially cutting him blank checks with no demands attached, Norquist said.
"It's clear it's going to be for the Republican ticket," Mann said. "That's all the donors need to know."
The ads will focus on issues in the nation's most competitive U.S. House and Senate races, said former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, who sits on the Congressional Leadership Fund board with Coleman.
"This is activism," Weber said. "We're not trying to curry favor with safe incumbents."
The convention plans and the 2012 election are part of a grander plan to influence policy, said American Action Network's president, Brian Walsh.
"You have to win, but you also have to govern," said Walsh, a former political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
To that end, the group is pairing with organizations in states with struggling Republican parties to address issues ranging from federal health care reform to the national debt.
In Minnesota, Coleman's group has forged ties with the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and Tea Party groups to register voters and rally supporters.
"It's not surprising that an outside group like the [American Action Network] would want to come in and try to patch some of the holes in the sinking ship that is the Minnesota Republican Party," said Kate Monson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota DFL Party.
Coleman says he relishes the challenge.
"I measure our influence by our ability to have a profound impact on public policy in this country," Coleman said. "It's always what's motivated me."
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @CMitchellStrib