DFLer Al Franken won an impressive share Saturday of what may be the last ballots tallied in the U.S. Senate recount, boosting his unofficial lead over Sen. Norm Coleman to 225 votes heading into a Monday meeting where the state Canvassing Board will certify the final result of the race.

At least two things, however, still stand in the way of Franken becoming Minnesota's newest U.S. senator: the possibility of a ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court that more wrongly rejected absentee ballots should be counted, and a legal contest that Coleman attorneys all but promised should Franken prevail.

It took only an hour Saturday afternoon for election officials to count 933 absentee ballots that all sides had agreed were wrongly rejected. Franken won 52 percent of them and Coleman captured 33 percent (the rest went to other candidates or cast no vote in the Senate race). It was a surprisingly muscular margin that was reflected in the glum looks of Coleman staffers and the satisfied appearance of Franken's staff.

Franken started the day with an unofficial lead of 49 votes. He achieved a net gain of 176 votes on Saturday.

Coleman's attorneys said that depending on what the court decides, they would be ready to file a legal action contesting the recount results as early as Tuesday. Recount attorney Fritz Knaak said that he believed 300 to 400 ballots would go Coleman's way in a contest, including through the addition of absentee ballots so far excluded and the elimination of so-called "double votes" in Minneapolis.

"We are prepared to go forward and take whatever legal action is necessary to ... remedy this artificial lead that we believe is being shown now for the Franken campaign," Knaak said.

Franken recount attorney Marc Elias was somewhat restrained in his comments following the counting, expressing satisfaction that the disputed absentee votes were counted and confidence that Franken will be declared the winner Monday.

"We are confident that since there are no ballots left to count, the final margin will stand with Al Franken having won the election by 225 votes," he said.

The margin, he said, was "comfortable." Compared with previous Franken leads of four votes or 50, he said, "225 votes is a real victory ... [it's] a close election, but it's a fairly clear victory."

Absentee ballot heartbreak

After the counting, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said he was satisfied that the recount results were as accurate as they could be, given human limitations, the scope of state law and Supreme Court directives.

But he said that the entire pool of 12,000 rejected absentee ballots "break my heart" because a complicated system disenfranchised those voters. And he said he wasn't happy at all with the court order that allowed the counting of only wrongly rejected absentee ballots that both campaigns agreed to accept.

"The two campaigns got to veto the right to vote of over 400 Minnesotans," he said.

The outcome Saturday was not a complete surprise, as the ballots counted came disproportionately from precincts where Franken did well on Election Day, according to a Star Tribune analysis. But Franken's margin was larger than expected, as Elias acknowledged.

"I told you when we were up 49 votes that I doubted we were going to lose more than 49 votes. I thought we'd gain some. ... We obviously gained more than we thought we would, and that's gratifying," he said.

Focus on the court

With the recount complete, focus immediately shifted to the Supreme Court, which continued to consider a request from the Coleman campaign to alter the process and add more absentee ballots to be reconsidered. But there was no word Saturday from the state's highest court as to when it would rule or hear arguments.

The state Canvassing Board is scheduled to meet Monday (and Tuesday, if necessary) to review the tally of the previously rejected ballots, then certify the final result.

Under state law, an election certificate formally naming a winner cannot be issued until all legal disputes are resolved.

The new Congress convenes Tuesday in Washington.

The Franken campaign, Ritchie and various county officials filed responses with the Supreme Court on Saturday morning. Franken, Ritchie and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman all argued forcefully against the Coleman petition. They said the process for identifying wrongly rejected absentee ballots had worked as intended and should be completed.

The Franken brief argued that the Coleman campaign had missed deadlines to request reconsideration of additional ballots, and added that all rejected absentee ballots have now been reviewed at least twice by local officials.

But it appeared that the rules for handling added ballots were understood and applied differently from one county to another. While officials in Hennepin, Ramsey and Rice counties said they had refused to consider additional ballots, officials in Anoka, Stearns and Pipestone counties said they had done so, even without agreement from the campaigns.

Much of the day Saturday was spent conducting a preliminary sorting of the ballots. At one point, state officials painstakingly separated the secrecy envelopes from the ballots.

Gelbmann, in announcing the move to reporters and lawyers, said it was another step to preserve the secrecy of individual votes and to "preserve evidence for possible future litigation."

Drama at day's start

The day began with a moment of drama when Tony Trimble, a lead recount attorney for Coleman, formally asked that the counting not begin until the Supreme Court made its ruling. "This procedure should not continue until the Supreme Court has acted," Trimble said, reflecting Coleman's dimming hopes of winning the recount without the addition of more ballots.

For much of the past week, the Coleman campaign had tried to force the secretary of state's office and local election officials to add 654 absentee ballots to the total, saying they, too, needed to be reviewed. The ballots came disproportionately from precincts where Coleman fared well in the election.

As meetings were held last week across the state to review the absentee ballots, Coleman's lawyers were largely unsuccessful in trying to get local election officials themselves to add the 654 ballots to the official count.

In Hennepin County, as elsewhere across the state, local election officials told Coleman that the two campaigns would have to first agree to adding more votes before local officials would consider doing so. Throughout the week, however, Franken officials repeatedly rejected attempts by Coleman to add more votes.

On Saturday, Trimble said the campaign would drop its objection to starting the count -- if the 654 ballots were included, along with several dozen ballots Franken wanted to add.

But after conferring with the Minnesota attorney general's office, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann said the counting would continue.

kduchschere@startribune.com 651-292-0164

mkaszuba@startribune.com 651-222-1673