The U.S. Senate recount continued Thursday without major glitches across Minnesota, as tabulators and the volunteers watching them settled into an increasingly familiar routine of thumbing, counting and sorting.

With about 46 percent of the 2.9 million ballots counted by Thursday evening, the gap between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and DFL challenger Al Franken continued to close. Coleman was leading by only 136 votes, a drop from his unofficial lead of 215 that was confirmed Tuesday by the state Canvassing Board.

The figures represent a compilation of recount data reported to the secretary of state and gathered by the Star Tribune.

Ramsey County elections manager Joe Mansky said things went smoothly Thursday, although he noted some tension in the morning as campaign observers asked to look at both sides of the ballots to see if any irregularities existed.

"The closeness of the race is raising the emotions, and both campaigns are trying everything they can," Mansky said. "Instructions have clearly come down from both campaigns to look at every avenue we can to make sure all our votes get counted."

Optimism on both sides

In Duluth, the inadequacies of outdated Eagle scanning machines continued to bedevil Coleman. Both he and Franken gained votes in St. Louis County because the machines didn't always read the line connecting an arrow pointing to the voter's choice, but Franken added more. In all, Franken gained 30 votes on Coleman in the Eagle precincts, with all but one of them counted.

With about 67 percent of St. Louis County's precincts counted, Franken had a net gain of 19 votes. Coleman press secretary Luke Friedrich, who has watched the county recount closely, said they were pleased Franken hadn't gained more. "We're pretty happy with these numbers," he said.

Both campaigns claimed to be optimistic Thursday about the recount results, but for different reasons.

By midafternoon, Coleman officials said they were confident that the senator's totals would rebound as counts were completed in the state's GOP sectors. Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said that Franken had closed the margin by only 13 votes in the 21 counties completing their recounts as of Thursday, while the biggest shifts in Franken's favor were occurring as expected in DFL strongholds.

"We're feeling very confident, even with the dip," Sheehan said.

But Franken campaign officials said they were seeing gains in Republican and Democratic areas alike.

"We did well in red areas," said Marc Elias. He said the campaign narrowed the gap by 16 votes Wednesday in parts of Hennepin County that typically lean Republican.

Challenges rising

The number of challenged ballots continued to increase Thursday, reaching 823. Mansky -- who worked from 1984 to 1999 in the secretary of state's office and is widely considered the state's foremost elections expert -- said that people shouldn't expect many of those challenges to bear fruit.

"I can only remember two ballot challenges in all those years that were sustained," he said, meaning that the campaign lawyers' views prevailed over the opinion of election judges.

He said he wouldn't be surprised if campaign lawyers negotiate a reduction in the number of challenged ballots before the Canvassing Board meets next month to go through them.

The same issues come up regularly, Mansky said -- one filled-in oval with a faint dot in another (typically voters tapping their pens on the ballot as they read it), two ovals filled in with one crossed out, which "comes up every election."

The third most common challenge, Mansky said, involves stray marks on the ballot. State law prohibits identifying marks, such as initials, because they can signal vote fraud. "If they don't jump out as an attempt to identify the ballot, they should be counted," Mansky said.

Mansky lost a court challenge to the Franken campaign on Wednesday when a Ramsey County judge directed that he provide information on voters whose absentee ballots were rejected to each campaign. Franken officials were vague Thursday about what they would do with that information, saying only that speculation that they were already trying to talk to those voters was mistaken.

One rejected absentee voter in Ramsey County told the Star Tribune on Thursday that she had been contacted by the Franken campaign.

"We're not going to speculate what the next step might be," said Andy Barr, Franken's communications director. He said the campaign had received lists of rejected absentee voters from about three dozen counties in all.

Barr also said the campaign did not have a precise total number of rejected absentee ballots, and added that reporters assuming the campaign had arrived at such a figure were underestimating the difficulty of doing that.

Fritz Knaak, a lead recount attorney for Coleman, said again Thursday that he suspected the Franken campaign's interest in the rejected absentee ballots was tied to a possible legal challenge should Franken lose the recount.

"It's basically positioning for a post-recount challenge," Knaak said.

Staff writers Curt Brown, Mike Kaszuba and Larry Oakes contributed to this report. Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455