The U.S. Senate recount neared its final hours Thursday, buffeted by the kinds of disputes over missing ballots and challenged ballots that have become familiar in the month since the post-election drama began.

Yet at day's end, with 99 percent of the ballots counted, the gap separating Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken was only 36 votes larger than it had been at the start. Coleman now leads by 251, according to Star Tribune tabulations.

As on Wednesday, the case of 133 missing ballots in Minneapolis held center stage. The city's top election official said she did not know where the ballots were, Franken's campaign pressed for a "systematic forensic search" to find them, and Coleman's lead recount attorney warned Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a DFLer, to keep politics out of the controversy.

By day's end, Ritchie's office had given the city a waiver to keep its recount open while the search continued, and sent deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann to assist in the hunt and serve as an official "witness" to the investigation.

The ballots, which were cast at a church in northeast Minneapolis, gained attention on Wednesday when the recount for the precinct tallied 133 ballots fewer than on Election Day.

Money, challenges

Thursday also was marked by a flurry of other developments.

Franken's campaign reported that it had raised $2.1 million for the recount, while Coleman's camp has raised $1.8 million. The Coleman campaign also announced that it was essentially matching Franken's pledge on Wednesday to withdraw more than 600 ballot challenges made during the recount.

The state Canvassing Board is to meet on Dec. 16 to begin reviewing the thousands of remaining ballot challenges from the two campaigns.

The point of contention Thursday remained Minneapolis' missing ballots.

Marc Elias, Franken's lead recount attorney, urged state and local officials to "move heaven and earth" to find the ballots, and vaguely hinted that the campaign would take action to keep the recount from ending without including them. The ballots, he said, were from a precinct near the University of Minnesota that included many first-time, and likely, many Franken voters.

"We will not stand for this. The people of Minnesota will not stand for this -- find the ballots!" Elias said.

Coleman campaign officials said they were equally upset, charging that Franken wanted to subject the church that served as the polling place to a forensic search.

"We reject the notion that government or taxpayers should be required to conduct forensic searches of places of worship," Fritz Knaak, Coleman's lead recount attorney, said in a letter to Ritchie.

Coleman officials said they were miffed that a news conference Thursday in Minneapolis, called to discuss the missing ballots, included the Franken campaign, an official from the secretary of state's office and Mayor R.T. Rybak, but no one from the Coleman campaign.

Not invited

Knaak noted that those invited, including Rybak, are Democrats while those representing Coleman, a Republican, were not invited. In a statement, Knaak asked that Ritchie's office "refrain from any activity or action that can be perceived as partisan or supportive of [Franken]."

If the 133 ballots are not found by the time the Canvassing Board meets on Dec. 16, it will be up to board members to decide which vote total to accept from the precinct, Gelbmann said.

Minneapolis election officials examined voting documents and interviewed workers who were part of the chain of custody of the ballots, said Cindy Reichert, the city's elections director. "Now, the physical search begins again," she said.

The ballots were in one of five envelopes that precinct judges delivered to the city's warehouse early on the morning of Nov. 5. But when re-counters started their work, the envelope labeled "1" among the five was missing, Reichert said.

That has led officials to believe the ballots are still somewhere in the warehouse, she said. "I'm still hopeful that we're going to find it in some odd place in our warehouse," she added. Reichert said she doesn't believe the ballots are still at the church.

Her original theory -- that write-in ballots at the precinct may have been mistakenly fed through the ballot counter twice on Nov. 4 -- hasn't panned out. "I don't have any other theories right now," Reichert said.

Withdrawing challenges

Knaak said the Coleman campaign would withdraw 650 challenges partly because of the Franken campaign's move to withdraw 633 the day before, and partly at the insistence of Coleman. Knaak, who only Wednesday had said that Coleman was staying "very much out of the way" in the recount, said the senator wanted to quicken the process and "lessen the strain on taxpayers."

Said Knaak: "This is the first time that I have ever had him weigh in."

Knaak also sent a direct appeal Thursday to the Franken campaign, asking that both sides sit down next week to "winnow down these challenged ballots" The two campaigns, as of Thursday, had filed more than 6,000 challenges, including those that they said would be withdrawn.

Said Elias of the Franken campaign: "If it is easier [in] this process to have a meeting, then we'll have a meeting."

When the withdrawn challenges would be reflected in the Minnesota secretary of state's recount was unclear. A spokesperson said workers from the office were sifting through each withdrawn challenge, looking at the original determination by the local election official and using that to decide how to count each vote. Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184

These numbers do not yet reflect the campaigns' withdrawal of hundreds of ballot challenges.