The U.S. Senate recount spiraled deeper into confusion and bickering Monday, with the campaigns of Sen. Norm Coleman and DFLer Al Franken at odds over how many rejected absentee ballots should be counted and a state Supreme Court deadline to do so looming just four days away.

The impasse clouded what might happen today as the first in a series of meetings across Minnesota, involving local election officials, convene to sort through at least 1,346 absentee ballots -- and maybe hundreds more -- to see which ones may have been improperly rejected in the Nov. 4 election.

A Star Tribune analysis of the origins of 93 percent of those ballots suggests an advantage for Franken.

With the state Canvassing Board holding out the possibility it may certify a winner in the hotly contested race as soon as next Tuesday, and with Franken holding a narrow lead, the absentee ballots may hold the key to the winner of the state's most contentious U.S. Senate race ever.

But by the time the second of two meetings with Deputy Secretary of State Jim Gelbmann ended late Monday afternoon, the campaigns remained far apart. Campaign lawyers held dueling news conferences, accusing the other side of trying to prevent an agreement. And even Gelbmann, who at one point asked lawyers from both campaigns to remain "civil," said a late proposal from Coleman -- to review 654 more votes atop the 1,346 absentee ballots that local officials had already agreed were mistakenly rejected -- threatened to derail the process.

"You're giving the local officials very little time," said Gelbmann, who said the Coleman request presented a "very daunting task."

No agreement on anything

The day's events, which left the Franken campaign accusing Coleman of erecting roadblocks, appeared to lay the groundwork for a future legal challenge should Coleman lose the recount. Coleman's attorneys said Franken, who had previously advocated for counting every legal vote, was now guilty of "hypocrisy" for balking at Coleman's push to review 654 more rejected absentee ballots.

"They want to count every vote as long as it's a vote for Franken -- but not otherwise," Tony Trimble, a Coleman recount attorney, told a cluster of reporters.

When the day ended, Gelbmann said he would leave it to the Coleman campaign to forward the list with the additional 654 votes to Minnesota's 87 counties, meaning the counties will likely have to decide individually whether they would comply with the request.

Over the weekend, the Franken campaign agreed to review only the 1,346 absentee ballots that local election officials had acknowledged were mistakenly rejected. Franken campaign officials said they had spent most of the weekend, without success, trying to get the Coleman campaign to join them.

While the Coleman campaign said it had identified at least 778 of the 1,346 that the campaign might agree to, Franken officials balked at reaching agreement on that subset because they were concerned Coleman was attempting to "cherry pick" those most favorable to Coleman.

Meanwhile, a Star Tribune analysis of the origins of 1,251 of the ballots identified by local officials, from 70 counties, suggests they might favor Franken overall.

Precincts in which Franken outpolled Coleman produced 696 of the ballots, compared with 555 from precincts where Coleman outpolled Franken. What's more, ballots from precincts where Franken outpolled Coleman by more than 25 percentage points (326 ballots) were 2 1/2 times as common as ballots from precincts where Coleman bested Franken by such lopsided margins (130 ballots).

The ballots the newspaper analyzed did not include those from Stearns County, a GOP stronghold that includes St. Cloud. Most of the other unaccounted-for ballots came from small rural counties, where the Republican ticket may also have run well.

Coleman's list

The Coleman campaign, meanwhile, released its own list late Monday, containing 654 rejected absentee ballots that it wants considered. The proposed additions are weighted heavily toward rural counties and the Twin Cities suburbs where Coleman fared well. While more than 170 of the ballots are from Hennepin County, only a half-dozen are from Minneapolis, where Franken did well. Republican-leaning suburbs Orono, Minnetonka and Minnetrista together had more ballots that Coleman wants to count than did Minneapolis.

Despite the confusion, the Coleman campaign held an early afternoon news conference and predicted that today's regional meetings would be "very amiable." Trimble, at one point, said, "It's going to be a very, very easy meeting."

Franken campaign officials said that the meetings would almost certainly be confusing and that Coleman did not seem interested in reaching an agreement. "There was actually almost no progress made, to our dismay, over the weekend," Hamilton said. "At this point, the process just seems to be broken."

Despite the acrimony, Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak said relations between attorneys for the two campaigns were amicable. "I wouldn't describe the tone, certainly among the lawyers, as uncivil," he said. • 651-222-1673 • 651-222-1210