Republican Sen. Norm Coleman holds a seven-point lead over his DFL challenger Al Franken, who appears to have been weakened by his recent tax problems.

A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll also shows that Mike Ciresi, the DFL trial lawyer who dropped out of the race in March for lack of support from his party's delegates, runs just about as strong against Coleman as Franken does.

Coleman enjoys a commanding 15-point lead over lesser-known Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, who is facing Franken in next month's DFL endorsing convention.

The telephone survey conducted last week shows Coleman attracting the support of 51 percent of registered voters, compared with 44 percent for Franken. In a hypothetical contest between Coleman and Ciresi, Coleman wins 51 percent to 43 percent. Against Nelson-Pallmeyer, Coleman's edge is 53 percent to 38 percent.

In what has been considered one of the most competitive Senate races in the nation, Coleman still shows some potential vulnerabilities, with a 45 percent overall job approval rating among all Minnesota adults in the poll.

In general, an incumbent seeking reelection who has a job approval rating below 50 percent is considered to be in the danger zone. Some of that appears to be a spillover from the unpopularity of President Bush.

"He seems to just go along with whatever [President] Bush wants," said Green Valley poll respondent Emily Viergutz, a student at Southwest Minnesota State University. "He's just sort of there, going with the flow."

But the DFLers have their own problems. Franken, a former "Saturday Night Live" star known nationally for his satirical attacks against Republicans, goes into the summer with 39 percent of all poll respondents saying they have an unfavorable impression of him. That's higher than the 33 percent who view him favorably.

"I think the country is pretty twisted, but I don't think you're going to get an actor to fix things," said Sean Sullivan, a 39-year-old independent from Maplewood.

Franken's recent tax problems also appear to have taken a toll. "If he can't handle his own affairs, then I don't think he can handle the Senate," said Gloria Martin, a retired nurse from Duluth.

Meanwhile, Nelson-Pallmeyer, a professor of justice and peace studies at the University of St. Thomas, is unknown to 75 percent of the public, as measured by the poll.

And while Ciresi shows surprising strength for someone who has been out of the limelight for two months, he too struggles with name recognition, with 46 percent of poll respondents saying they never heard of him.

Ciresi's 'intense interest'

Ciresi, in an e-mail Sunday, said the poll shows that "Senator Coleman can be beat." He also left open the possibility of reentering the race later, saying, "I continue to watch the race with intense interest, but it is not my present intention to reenter."

Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said he was cheered by the poll, noting that it is the second major poll showing Coleman with a "significant lead." Sheehan played down Coleman's job approval rating, saying "we've only been in the race for just over a month so we haven't spent a great deal of time actually campaigning."

Said Franken spokesman Andy Barr: "We fully expect this to be a close race all the way to November."

Nelson-Pallmeyer's campaign issued a statement noting that he has been outspent by Franken by 16 to 1: "The difference in name recognition in the general public is a minor issue at this stage. Winning the DFL endorsement will erase any deficit in name recognition."

Coleman's seven-point lead over Franken is just fractionally within the poll's margin of sampling error -- 3.6 percentage points, plus or minus -- among the 1,117 registered voters polled May 12 to May 15 on the Coleman-Franken pairing.

But Coleman's lead also is consistent with other polls over the past month. An April 22 Rasmussen poll showed Coleman beating Franken by a similar seven-point margin; a SurveyUSA poll on May 2 showed Coleman with a 10-point lead.

But as recently as March, the polls showed the race much closer, with Coleman tipping Franken by two percentage points in the Rasmussen poll. In February, the same poll showed Franken a three-point lead.

Independent voters key

In the new Minnesota Poll, Coleman is buoyed by a 20-point lead among independents. Independent voters broke against Ciresi by a similar spread. In a matchup between Coleman and Nelson-Pallmeyer, the gap among independents favors Coleman by nearly 30 points.

Among the poll respondents favoring Coleman is Don Eslinger, a United Methodist pastor from Bloomington who says he generally favors third-party underdogs and has "never voted for a presidential winner." In Eslinger's view, Coleman "has done a credible job" under difficult circumstances. As for Franken, he said, "Bless his heart, but I don't think he's as qualified as Norm Coleman."

One of Coleman's biggest liabilities among independents and others is a perception that he bends with the political winds. "I think Coleman is nothing but a puppet for President Bush," said Joan Moeller, a disaffected Democrat and a retired marketing researcher from Minnetonka.

Altogether, 41 percent of poll respondents said they see Coleman as "an independent thinker," while an equal number agreed with the statement that he "usually goes along with what President Bush wants."

More troubling for Coleman, a former DFLer, is that only 34 percent consider him "someone with a core set of political principles." Also, 45 percent go along with the view that he "tends to change his mind to try to gain political advantage."

Bob Schmidt, a home contractor in Owatonna, said he sees Coleman as a "typical politician" and favors Franken because "I'm hoping he's not afraid to be outspoken."

While DFLers have made it clear they intend to tie Coleman to the unpopular Republican president, some poll respondents showed signs of tiring of that message.

"The Democrats say everybody who they want to defeat is a loyal Bush follower," said retired Eagan resident Thomas O'Neill, who describes himself as an ex-Democrat who supports Coleman.

Similarly, Franken appears to have been hurt by his recent income tax problems, which have become the subject of a sustained GOP attack. Overall, 42 percent said they are not satisfied with the explanations that he has given, and 28 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for him.

"How could you not pay your taxes? That's the thing that jumps out at you," said Sullivan.

But there are also signs of forgiveness among others, including Mike Garry, a retired teacher and business owner in Austin. "We all make mistakes. I think that was an oversight," Garry said. "Maybe I'm rationalizing it, but I'm not too upset about that."

Garry, a Democrat, says he supports Franken, but also mentions that before Ciresi dropped out he was on the fence between the two candidates. "I was kind of torn between [Franken] and Ciresi, but I don't think Ciresi is a factor much anymore," Garry said. "So that's why I would support [Franken]."

Overall, Coleman leads his potential DFL opponents in most demographic groups, with the exception of minority voters. Franken and Ciresi also do better among college graduates. Coleman runs strongest among voters earning more than $75,000 a year, outstate voters and voters with no college education.

For Coleman, the bad news of his 45 percent job approval rating is mixed with the good news that it has held steady since the last Minnesota Poll in September. Meanwhile, his disapproval rate fell from 37 percent to 31 percent.

Significantly, nearly 30 percent of the Democrats and almost half of independents in the poll gave the freshman senator a thumbs-up on the job he's doing in Washington.

That's a dramatic difference from Bush, and one that could be key for Coleman in a year that has been expected to be tough on Republicans generally.

Staff writer Conrad Wilson contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753