The weekend isn't bringing any respite in the Minnesota Senate recount.

Ballots in the ultra-close race between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken are being counted in at least three counties today.

Fifty-three counties have reported complete results to the secretary of state, meaning fewer than three dozen remain.

Data reported Saturday night by the secretary of state showed that 65.5 percent of the estimated 2.9 million ballots had gotten a second look.

The incumbent Coleman entered the recount with a 215-vote edge over Franken, a comedian and author. That lead had dropped in the first three days of the recount, but Coleman rebounded some in the latest results and is 167 votes in front when comparing totals in precincts where the new count is complete. But the figure doesn't include ballot challenges, which have caused vote tallies for both candidates to drop.

According to state numbers, there have been 1,893 challenges between the campaigns, although some could be withdrawn before the Canvassing Board's Dec. 16 meeting. The two are running about even in challenges.

In a high-ceilinged warehouse in northeast Minneapolis, the recount was carefully monitored by 52 volunteer observers for Coleman and 40 for Franken.

The work area was hushed, with little conversation as people focused on their work.

Corlyss  Affeldt, of Eden Prairie, is a Coleman volunteer who worked for 9 hours on Thursday in Bloomington and Richfield. 

 “I’m doing it because I want to make sure it’s right …that seems to be the prevailing motivation right now: I just want it right,” she said.

Another Coleman volunteer, Lynda Bodin, a dental hygienist  from Wayzata, said: “If you stayed home (on election day) thinking your vote doesn’t count, this proves it does.” 

Nick Heille, of Minneapolis,  who has served as an election judge, also volunteered for Coleman and praised the recount.  

 “The process is extraordinarily honest,” said Heille, a retired tech specialist for Hennepin County. “I continue to marvel at it. It’s a very strong system and people don’t abuse it. “

Franken observers said they were instructed to direct media inquires to the campaign spokesmen.

The wear and tear of the state's U.S. Senate recount began to show Friday, as some counties reported missing ballots and a rising number of challenged ballots frayed nerves among counters and monitors alike.

As of Friday night, Coleman was hanging on to his whisker-thin lead over Franken. With 64 percent of the 2.9 million ballots recounted, Coleman was ahead by 120 votes, down from 136 at the end of Thursday and from the unofficial lead of 215 signed off on 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.

Earlier Friday, during an energy-related visit to Wright County, Coleman expressed second thoughts about a statement he made the morning after the Nov. 4 election.

Asked whether he would concede the race if the Canvassing Board certified Franken as the winner -- as Coleman had suggested that Franken should do that post-election morning -- the senator noted that at the time his 700-plus-vote lead over Franken was more substantial and that he hadn't slept in 36 hours. Now, he said, "I don't think I'd have made the same statement."

A handful of counties will continue counting today, and perhaps even Sunday, in hopes that their work may be substantially finished by Thanksgiving. Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said Friday that 75 percent of the recount would be completed by tonight. Ritchie also said the Canvassing Board will meet Wednesday to discuss what to do about the Franken campaign's request to consider rejected absentee ballots and count them if they were improperly turned aside.

Missing ballots

There were tense moments Friday in Anoka County and the Duluth area, as election officials went in search of ballots that had disappeared.

Anoka County officials discovered that a Coon Rapids precinct had three fewer ballots than the voting machine printout said should be in the box. The Coon Rapids city clerk and representatives from both campaigns drove to City Hall but didn't find them. The machine printout and the hand-count of the ballots indicated that the three ballots were votes for Franken.

In St. Louis County's recount Friday morning, four ballots -- three for Coleman and one for Franken -- could not be found in a packet delivered by Hermantown's Precinct 3.

County Election Director Paul Tynjala said it was hard to know why the machine count didn't match the hand-count.

A bigger problem threatened Friday afternoon, when county workers counting ballots from Duluth's Precinct 12 came up 74 ballots short of the number electronically counted on election night. City officials were called, and a search ensued.

This time, the missing ballots were found in one of the precinct's counting machines, locked in a city warehouse on Duluth's West Side, according to County Auditor Don Dicklich. All the ballots, some for Franken and some for Coleman, were there; campaign observers said they were satisfied it was an honest mistake, and none of the votes was challenged.

Challenged ballots spiked in Ramsey County, where the county attorney's office squelched negotiations that had limited challenged ballots the first two days of the recount and observers from both campaigns questioned voters' intentions far more broadly than before.

Ramsey County Election Manager Joe Mansky, who had negotiated down challenged ballots Wednesday and Thursday with the campaigns, was told by Assistant County Attorney Darwin Lookingbill to "punt all the disputed ballots to the Canvassing Board. So that's what we will do," Mansky said.

Mansky said he thought both campaigns have instructed observers to issue challenges more widely.

Trading shots

The campaigns traded accusations at dueling news conferences Friday.

Coleman officials taped 51 ballots challenged by Franken officials on a wall and podium and labeled them "Franken's Frivolous Follies." Most the ballots were from Meeker County and marked with an X rather than a filled-in oval.

Cullen Sheehan, Coleman's campaign manager, said he believed the Franken campaign was increasing their number of challenges to remove them from the secretary of state's running vote totals and so make the gap between the candidates seem smaller than it was.

"[The] only way that they can continue to show the number is dropping is to challenge more ballots frivolously," said Sheehan -- who also acknowledged that as of mid-afternoon Friday, the Coleman campaign had challenged 20 more ballots than had Franken's.

Franken campaign officials said their internal counting showed they had cut Coleman's lead to "double digits" as of late Thursday and said that the recount had so far taken place in Republican-leaning parts of the state.

"The ballots that have been counted are slightly redder than the total pool," said Marc Elias, the lead Franken recount attorney. "We overall feel very good.

For their part, Franken officials showed a series of ballots challenged by the Coleman camp that showed a vote for Republican presidential candidate John McCain and either a vote for Franken or no one for senator. "Now, that's silly," Elias said.

Ritchie said the format for Wednesday's state Canvassing Board meeting was not yet set, and that he wasn't sure how the issue of rejected absentee ballots -- a key issue raised by the Franken campaign -- would be addressed or whether the campaigns would have another chance to make their case.

Staff writers Curt Brown, Mike Kaszuba, Paul Levy, Larry Oakes and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report. Kevin Duchschere • 651-292-0164