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WASHINGTON - The Minnesota Senate race is headed for a decision, as is Norm Coleman.
Tuesday's ruling by a three-judge panel that limits its election review to about 400 additional ballots is provoking a fresh debate among political analysts and leaders in both parties: How should the Minnesota Republican, now down 225 votes, weigh the likelihood of prevailing on appeal against the potential political costs of dragging out the contest against Democrat Al Franken?
"So far Minnesotans are being stoic," said Kay Wolsborn, a political scientist at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. "They're fans of good process, and they understand that the courts take a while."
But, Wolsborn added, "at every stage there are a few more eyebrows up and eyes rolling."
On Wednesday, the court's decision did not seem to be tempering Coleman's plans. His own lawyers say he is likely to lose his current bid before the panel, and Coleman promised a national radio audience Wednesday that he will move quickly to appeal if necessary.
"You have to file in 10 days," he told Fox News Radio. "We're going to file quicker than 10 days, I can assure you."
He said that if all the votes are counted, he will win.
Coleman's GOP allies in Congress, meanwhile, are urging patience. "Although we all want finality to this historically close election, patience must outweigh partisanship as Minnesotans continue the process to attain the accurate results from Election Day," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
To be sure, the danger of seeming to be a sore loser has dogged both candidates in the topsy-turvy race: first Franken, when he pressed his right to a mandatory recount of Coleman's narrow election-night lead; and then Coleman, when he challenged the recount that left him 225 votes behind.
"It's worth remembering, as the recount was going on so many months ago, that it was clear that whoever came out behind was going to appeal this," said University of Minnesota political science Prof. Kathryn Pearson.
The purpose of the public relations campaign that both sides have been waging for months is now coming into sharper focus. Although judges will decide the legal outcome of the race, the voters may ultimately decide whether one side or the other took it too far.
And right now, the onus is on Coleman, the candidate whose prospects now appear dimmer. Since Franken was certified the recount leader in January, Coleman has been cast in the role of underdog.
"He's been faced with this dilemma at every single stage," Wolsborn said. "He has to think seriously about his professional goals. If he would like to run for governor, in case the governor wants to run for president, then there's a lot at stake in terms of his statewide appeal."
"At some point, if it looks like if all this is simply an effort to prevent the seating of Franken while important votes are up in the Senate, it could look like a denial of democracy," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It would certainly diminish Coleman's options for reentering public life."
But until the state court appeals are exhausted, few observers see any chance of Coleman throwing in the towel.
"It's probably more realistic to just see him completely entwined in this recount fight," said Joseph Kunkel, who teaches political science at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "He has to play it out to the bitter end."
Kunkel sees little to gain from a graceful exit. "We're probably beyond the point where either one of these guys is going to generate any kind of goodwill," he said. "People are fed up with both of them already."
In the view of Kunkel and others, there's also a unique personal factor for Coleman. Unlike Franken and many current U.S. senators, Coleman, a lifelong public official, is no millionaire. "There's a question of 'what next' if he gives up," Kunkel said.
Any choice Coleman makes now will be a difficult one.
Stakes high in Senate
On Monday, the Minnesota secretary of state will gather documents for the 400 disputed absentee ballots and turn them over to the three-judge panel, which will decide how many to open.
The ballots that the judges identify as legally cast will be opened and counted Tuesday morning by the secretary of state's office. The totals will be included in the results for the Senate election.
Coleman would have to win the overwhelming majority of the 400 ballots to overcome his 225-vote deficit. Barring that, his best hope is to win a round before the Minnesota Supreme Court.
While much is at stake for the Senate -- Franken would bring Democrats to within one vote of the 60-vote majority needed to break GOP filibusters -- some analysts say Coleman and his Senate GOP allies, facing new elections next year, will also have to decide when to cut their losses.
"If Coleman seems like a long shot, they must ask how long they want to devote their resources to the Minnesota Senate race," Wolsborn said. "This is a very resource- intensive process."
Staff Writer Pat Doyle contributed to this report.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753