Election fever still raging

A recount in Minnesota is turning into as much of a battle as the original race for the Senate.

In this Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 picture, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., claims victory in his reelection bid as his wife Laurie, left, looks on during a news conference in St. Paul, Minn., after the unoffical vote tally showed Coleman and Democrat Al Franken in one of Minnesota's tightest Senate elections that appears certain to trigger a recount. The lack of a uniform standard for counties securing ballots after an election could come into play when those votes are recounted in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
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Perhaps it is the long, frigid winters and the austere Scandinavian and German stock from which they hail. Whatever the reason, residents of the midwestern US state of Minnesota are a taciturn lot. In fact, conventional wisdom holds that if you get very excited about something in Minnesota, you might as well put a bumper sticker on your forehead that says, "I'm not from around here."

These days, however, Minnesotans are a bit more animated. The reason is that the 2008 elections are not over. If anything, election fervour has increased since Nov 4. Minnesota is one of three states, along with Georgia and Alaska, where elections for the US Senate have yet to be decided. At stake in the races is even firmer Democratic Party control in Washington. In January, when Barack Obama is sworn in and a new session of Congress convenes, Democrats will control the White House and the legislature for the first time in 14 years. A Democratic sweep of all the undecided ballots would - together with the votes of two independents - give the party 60 seats in the 100-seat Senate and a veto-insulating majority.

As Minnesotans with their trademark understatement would say: "That's different." The reason for all the fuss is the recount set to start today of about 2.9 million votes cast in the race between the Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman, and the Democratic challenger, Al Franken. Unofficially Mr Coleman is ahead by 206 votes. The pair could hardly be more dissimilar. Mr Coleman voted with George W Bush 98 per cent of the time in his first year as senator, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Mr Franken, his opponent, was one of the original writers of the television show Saturday Night Live and is the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, a scathing satire of the American right-wing talk show icon. The race drew heavy outside interest. By election day more than US$40 million (Dh147m) was reported to have been spent in the campaign - the country's most expensive Senate race. Nationwide, Democrats saw an opportunity to herald a new day and Republicans a permanent change rightward in the state's politics.

Instead, what occurred after polls closed on Nov 4 looked more like a throwback to the disputed 2000 presidential elections and titanic struggles over "hanging chads" - the disputed ballots in Florida that ultimately gave victory to Mr Bush over his rival, Al Gore. First the Associated Press declared Mr Coleman the winner, before retracting its call under a cloud of confusion hours later. Then, amid allegations of tampered votes, votes lost in a car and votes mysteriously discovered in a northern Minnesota city, Mr Coleman's lead shrunk to the current 206 votes. Fifteen per cent went to a third-party candidate.

Under Minnesota state law any margin less than one-half of a percentage point triggers an automatic hand recount. So today party officials, lawyers and any interested member of the public will converge on 107 sites across the state to watch as election officials review each ballot for the voter's intent. Each campaign will have a representative present who can challenge an official's decision on a ballot. Disputed ballots go to a canvassing board, which will deliver a verdict. Legal battles challenging the outcome are certain.

Millions of additional dollars have flooded the state to monitor the recount in a smash-mouth, bare-knuckled fight by each party to protect the investment it has already made. The mud is flying, too. National Republicans are believed to have distributed a background paper accusing the state official in charge of overseeing the recount, a Democrat, of having ties to the Communist Party of America and a controversial voter registration group.

If the race does not get resolved by the time the Senate convenes in January, the prospect exists that the Democratic-controlled Senate could vote on whether to seat Mr Franken - a vote that, if held, would almost surely spark further recriminations. Already the pace of accusation and counter-accusation is dizzying, said Jay Weiner, a veteran Minnesota political reporter. "What this US Senate recount really needs is a team of massage therapists and orthopaedists to handle all the political back and forth," said Weiner, writing in MinnPost.com.

Notwithstanding the election of Mr Obama, who won in Minnesota with 54.1 per cent of the vote to John McCain's 43.8 per cent, the razor-thin margin between Mr Coleman and Mr Franken reflects the state's polarised electorate. Historically Minnesota is a famous liberal bastion. It was home to such liberal acolytes as Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey, who in 1948 became the first politician on a national political stage to use the term "human rights" and press for the extension of civil rights to African-Americans. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress, as well as Bob Dylan and Prince, come from the state too.

Yet in recent years the prairie populism for which Minnesota has always been known has been cutting politically right as well as left, sometimes not prettily. In the recent campaign a Republican representative, Michelle Bachmann, suggested on national TV that the media ought to expose who in Congress is "pro-America" and who is "anti-America". She won re-election. And during a campaign stop by Mr McCain, 40-something Gayle Quinnell tried to explain her concerns about Mr Obama. In the end she sputtered: "He's an Arab," causing not a few Minnesotans to cringe and Mr McCain to defend him.

Still, the 5.2 million people of Minnesota mostly are pragmatic and suspicious of ideologues. In 1998 they elected third-party candidate - and former professional wrestler, bodyguard for the Rolling Stones and former Navy UDT (precursor to the navy Seals) - Jesse "the Body" Ventura their governor, then plastered their cars with bumper stickers that read: "My governor can beat up your governor." This stubbornness makes the state unpredictable.

Garrison Keillor, the chronicler of life in the fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon and one of the state's most famous citizens, said: "Wobegonians are folks who steer a steady course and make fun of people with Big Ideas, but by God they admire gumption." cnelson@thenational.ae