The wait is agonizing for Coleman, Franken

  • Article by: PATRICIA LOPEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2009 - 11:27 PM

The candidates and their staffs are keeping their phones close by because they know the ruling could come any day now, ending a seven-month odyssey.

Most days, Norm Coleman reports to work as an adviser to the Republican Jewish Coalition. He also attends meetings, makes speeches, stays in touch with former Senate colleagues, squeezes in a little fishing up at his lake cabin. And he waits.

Most days, Al Franken dives into briefing books and tries to get up to speed on everything from the biggest issues of the day to the most arcane of Senate rules. He gets more time to cook with his family, hang out with friends, indulge in his passion for reading. But mostly, he, too, waits.

Three weeks have passed since the Minnesota Supreme Court, in what may be the last stop in the seven-month odyssey known as the Senate recount, heard oral arguments over who won the most ballots cast so long ago, in November 2008.

Since then: silence. Except for the sound of clocks in both camps ticking as 5 p.m. approaches, when campaign staffers keep their cell phones extra close and nervously eye their e-mails in the moments before the justices go home. Then, another long day of waiting looms the following morning.

"I think everyone's on the edge of their seat," said Jess McIntosh, Franken's communications director. "Al's never too far away from the phone at any given moment because it could happen any time."

Tom Erickson, Coleman's spokesman, says that "every time I drop him off at the airport, I think, 'They're going to rule as soon as he's on the plane.' I'm afraid to even go to a movie."

Erickson and McIntosh know that when that ruling comes, they will have mere moments to find the candidates, prep the winner, comfort the loser and slap on the bravest face they can before facing hordes of media eager for a new chapter in this long-running political soap opera.

'The wait is agonizing'

Franken declined a request for an interview while the court is still deliberating. Norm Ornstein, a close friend who also is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said, "The wait is agonizing, maybe even more for his family and friends than for him."

Contested and litigated at every turn, Minnesota's Senate race has tested both men in ways they could hardly have imagined when they started.

"Any way you look at it, this has been a character-building and humbling experience," said Ornstein, who tracks congressional politics for the institute.

Former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger says that at times he has worried about his friend Norm. Worried about the toll that months of intense pressure, scrutiny and mounting legal bills can take.

Coleman has also spent time recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.

But, Erickson said, that has barely slowed Coleman, who was in Washington on Wednesday for the National Endowment for Democracy, a private nonprofit on whose board he serves. Coleman also spoke to the Conservative Heartland Leadership conference in St. Louis this month, stays in touch "with fellow senators," and attended the requisite Minnesota grad parties and weddings, Erickson said. There's been time to steal away to the cabin at Lake Ada, spend Father's Day with his mother in New York and, because he's an attorney himself, pore over his legal case.

While conventional wisdom gives him little chance of being the victor once the court ruling is issued, the "once and future senator," as Erickson calls him, has been assured by Republican leaders that his committee spots are reserved for him.

"He may not officially be senator, but he still has a full plate," Erickson said.

Franken has been similarly busy preparing for what he is confident will be a five-and-a-half-year term in office. He, too, travels regularly to Washington, meets with Democratic leaders and is trying to put together an office and staff months after other freshman senators ended their transitions and got to work.

"He's champing at the bit," Ornstein said. "There's so much that's up now, so many things being decided: climate change, energy, financial regulation, health care. The desire to be there, in the fray, play a role, have a voice is extremely strong."

While Franken has taken some time off, Ornstein said, "you can't be very far away from home base because you're always hoping this thing gets resolved and then move very quickly into the stride of being a senator."

While Franken is planning for a transition, he can ill afford to look presumptuous about the court's coming decision or what may follow.

"He's had to walk this little tightrope," Ornstein said.

Franken is not serene by nature, Ornstein said, "but he knows there are things you can control and things you can't control and he's learned to operate in that mode. There's nothing you can control about this at this point."

Erickson summed the situation up neatly for both sides.

"I don't think anyone enjoys sitting in limbo," Erickson said. "He [Coleman] has certainly been doing the best he can, still going on his full schedule, business as usual. Even though there is no usual."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288

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