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Battling on in Minn. election

State justices did not hold back as Franken and Coleman teams argued their cases.

ST. PAUL, Minn. - An hour-long hearing before a feisty Minnesota Supreme Court put a new spark in the state's U.S. Senate race yesterday, but Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman ended the day stuck in familiar waiting mode.

The justices did not say when they would rule in an election already seven months past its natural end. And the possibility that the race could be taken to federal courts means the state court's ruling might not be the last word.

"I firmly believe that Minnesotans understand the importance of getting it right," Coleman said after court adjourned. "We're very close to that point right now."

The justices could confirm Franken as the winner, while Coleman's best hope is an order to reopen the count in a race he trails by 312 votes.

The two men have combined to spend $50 million so far, more than double what it cost candidates in 2002, when Coleman captured what had been a Democratic seat.

Coleman is seeking a second term, while Franken, a liberal author and radio personality, is trying to leap from the entertainment world.

During the hearing, justices focused on whether vote-counting flaws alleged by Coleman were severe enough to deny Franken a Senate seat. Coleman's key argument for months has been that different counties applied different standards to decide whether absentee ballots were legally cast.

Interrupted by justices frequently, Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg argued that people who made substantial efforts to comply with the law should have their votes counted.

"Twelve thousand citizens who made good-faith efforts to vote were disenfranchised, with a variety of reasons," Friedberg said.

But Justice Alan Page alluded to a threshold that appeals courts often turn to in deciding whether to reverse a lower-court decision.

"It's possible there are statutory violations which do not rise to the level of constitutional violation," Page said.

Justice Christopher Dietzen told Friedberg he saw "no evidence of fraud or misconduct."

"It seems like you're offering little more than an opening statement in this case," Dietzen said. "Coleman's theory of the case, but no concrete evidence to back it up."

During his turn at the lectern, Franken attorney Marc Elias argued that Coleman's team failed to show specific voters were disenfranchised, but only broad categories of mistakes that might have left some voters behind.

"This isn't evidence," Elias said. "This is an argument."

If Coleman loses, he could file a new case in federal court or petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is not certain to take the case.

If Franken does not like the result, he could ask the Senate itself to weigh in.

Franken hopes the court orders that he immediately receive the election certificate required to take office. Franken is the potential 60th vote for Democrats in the Senate, although two of those are independents. Sixty votes are needed to block a filibuster.

Coleman would not talk about what lies ahead for him. "Let's see what this court does," he said when asked if he would pursue other legal options if he lost at this level. "At this point my firm hope and fervent hope is to enfranchise over 4,000 more Minnesotans."