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Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken has climbed back from the hole he found himself in earlier this summer and now is neck and neck with Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, according to a new poll.
The University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute/Minnesota Public Radio poll puts Franken at 41 percent, Coleman at 40 percent. A relative newcomer to the race, the Independence Party's Dean Barkley, posts 8 percent; 11 percent are undecided.
That makes for a fluid race in which Barkley could act as something of a spoiler, although he still faces his own party primary that includes six other IP candidates who were not included in the poll.
"It's pretty clear that he's drawing from people who might ordinarily have gone to Franken," said political science professor Larry Jacobs, who directs the poll. "He is competing with Franken for the angry voter who disapproves of Bush and sees the country as off on the wrong track."
With little cash -- he has not yet aired any ads and says he has raised less than $30,000 so far -- Barkley nevertheless has tapped into a well of Minnesotans who are dissatisfied with Coleman but unwilling to consider Franken, Jacobs said.
Franken spokeswoman Jess McIntosh said that "we didn't need a poll to tell us Al has tremendous momentum in this race and that Minnesotans are responding positively to his message of change all over the state." Asked about Barkley's effect on the race, McIntosh said that the race "is between Al Franken and Norm Coleman. That's always been our focus."
Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said that he always expected a close race, "but the fact that Norm Coleman continues to have a wide lead among independents and is tied overall in a poll that leans so heavily Democratic is very encouraging."
Barkley was cheery about his showing. "It's about where I thought I'd be," he said. "I've only been at this a month. I've done no media. I just started fundraising. I'm very happy with this. I just wish Franken would stop stealing all my voters."
The poll of likely voters, which has an error margin of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points, was conducted Aug. 7-17 and was made up of 50 percent self-identified Democratic respondents, 39 percent Republicans and 10 percent Independents.
Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey argued that Democrats are overrepresented in the poll. "No reasonable person in Minnesota would believe" that partisan split, he said. "The results of this poll should be taken with a grain of salt."
Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst with the Cook Political Report, said that the poll does show the race tightening, but that Barkley's support and Franken's inability to own any single issue should send a troubling signal to the Franken campaign.
Franken draws only 71 percent of Democrats, she said, while Coleman pulls 81 percent of Republicans. Franken also continues to lag behind Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who polled 48 percent in the MPR/U of M poll.
The poll shows Franken doing slightly better than Coleman on the economy, health care and gas prices, while Coleman is ranked a bit higher than Franken on the Iraq war and terrorism.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288