The Great Minnesota Recount kicked off Wednesday with masses of volunteers for Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken moving into a fresh phase of the struggle: eyeballing the first of 2.9 million ballots, ready to pounce on anything that looked questionable.

By day's end, with about 18 percent of the vote recounted, Coleman continued to lead Franken -- but by only 174 votes, notably narrower than the unofficial gap of 215 votes at which the recount had begun. Franken's gain owed much to a swing of 23 votes in the Democratic stronghold of St. Louis County -- the result of faintly marked ballots and older optical scanners that failed to read the marks.

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

Campaign monitors from both sides had challenged a total of 269 votes statewide, with Coleman observers disputing 146 ballots while the Franken camp challenged 123.

If that pace continues, challenged votes could wind up being a major factor in a race where the margin is down to hundreths of a percentage point. Challenged votes will be set aside until mid-December, when a five-member state Canvassing Board will review them individually.

In the meantime, local officials in more than 50 locations maintained a steely calm in the face of crowded observation rooms, sometimes over-eager campaign volunteers and the knowledge that they are at the very beginning of a month-long drama that has cast a spotlight on Minnesota and its voting process.

"It's amazing to see democracy in action, isn't it?" said Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, as he stopped by a recount center on Wednesday afternoon, watching officials wheel in pushcarts loaded with stacks of ballot boxes. "Things have gone pretty smooth."

Courtroom drama

But the day was not without its drama.

In Ramsey County, just hours into the recount, the Franken campaign claimed its first solid legal victory -- a court order that required the county to turn over the names of absentee voters whose ballots were rejected.

The Franken campaign has made the rejected absentee ballots a major element in its strategy for victory. Franken attorneys are pushing the state Canvassing Board to include unlawfully rejected ballots in the total recount. Most counties have refused to release the names, but Marc Elias, Franken's lead recount attorney, said the Ramsey County decision should open doors across the state.

"I'm happy to report the court saw things our way," a buoyant Elias told reporters minutes after the order had been handed down. Elias said the campaign would contact other counties and expected that most would comply. He would not say whether the campaign would use the lists to contact individual voters, but Franken volunteers have already done so in Beltrami County, which released its list last week. That had elicited complaints from Coleman recount attorney Fritz Knaak, who argued voter privacy should prevail.

"We'll decide what to do with the data once we get it," Elias told reporters. "I promise to you I will not knock on Mr. Knaak's door, in order to avoid frightening him."

Taking charge in Ramsey

Both sides professed to be pleased with the recount and happy to have it underway.

Franken campaign spokesman Andy Barr said the campaign had deployed 2,100 trained volunteers across the state, bolstered by an array of national and local legal talent.

Knaak said his side has about 200 lawyers monitoring the process, along with hundreds of volunteers. At sites across the state, local officials were heavily outnumbered by campaign observers who crowded into rooms to watch what is fast becoming another piece of Minnesota history -- a recount in the tightest U.S. Senate race in the country.

Low numbers of challenged ballots and few changes in precinct vote totals in St. Paul marked a busy Day 1 of the recount in Ramsey County, the state's second-largest.

Eight tables of recounters began with the larger precincts in St. Paul, where very preliminary numbers showed Franken picking up four net votes in the first 17 precincts recounted. Franken lost five votes and Coleman lost nine with most of those "lost" 14 ballots going into manila "challenged" envelopes after observers for Coleman or Franken questioned the voters' intent.

Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky -- already named in Wednesday's lawsuit because of his refusal to share absentee ballot information with the Franken camp -- took another strong stand on Wednesday afternoon, insisting that in disputed ballots where voter intent was clear, he should make the call.

Coleman recount attorney Knaak told reporters that Mansky "just can't do that," and had to be made to understand that once challenged, ballots had to be set aside for the state Canvassing Board to make a determination.

But Mansky, a longtime elections expert who logged years at the Secretary of State's office, instead called Franken and Coleman lawyers aside at the end of the day to review the 13 challenged ballots. "I'm going to win all those challenges, I guarantee 100 percent," Mansky said. "We have some folks who are new to this and feel they have to challenge something."

When the informal meeting was over, only a single ballot remained in dispute, out of 30,000 votes counted that day.

With ballots being tabulated at the rate of 700 per hour, or five seconds a ballot, Mansky said counters were slightly ahead of schedule. He now hopes to complete the recount of St. Paul's 104 precincts by Tuesday before shifting to the 74 suburban precincts. He's allotted 10 business days and hopes to wrap up by Dec. 4.

Weeks of work ahead

Recount officials will take up their task again today and every day until the votes are tabulated, with a full report expected by Dec. 5. The Canvassing Board is expected to make a decision on rejected absentee ballots early next week and rule on challenged ballots starting Dec. 16. While a court challenge could delay results further, Ritchie said he hopes to have an actual winner declared before the end of the year.

"Hopefully," he said.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288 Curt Brown • 612-673-4767