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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. In Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman has seen his support slipping in the polls, along with many of his fellow Republicans, because of the economic crisis. At the same time, the numbers are looking better for his Democratic challenger, comedian and activist Al Franken. Further complicating the picture is a third contestant from the Independence Party. NPR's David Welna has this update on Minnesota's hard-fought, three-way Senate race.

DAVID WELNA: Senator Norm Coleman's re-election prospects were definitely looking better last summer. Polls had him leading Democratic challenger Al Franken by double digits. That lead's since vanished, and most surveys now give Franken a slight edge. So Coleman these days is riding what he calls "The Hope Express," a marathon campaign swing through Minnesota. Thirty-one people welcomed Coleman to The Point. It's a coffee house in Hastings, a river town of 20,000. Coleman opens his pitch acknowledging the elephant in the room, the nation's economic meltdown.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): Folks are angry about what's happening in Washington and the impact it's having on you. Were you angry?

Unidentified Woman: Yes, Senator.

(Soundbite of group voicing agreement)

Senator COLEMAN: I'm angry, too. And the question is, what do you do with it?

WELNA: Not once does Coleman mention his recent vote for the $700 billion rescue package. When Independent voter Bill Theel of Wanamingo, Minnesota, later confronts Coleman over that vote, the senator grows defensive.

Senator COLEMAN: AIG provides the insurance...

Mr. BILL THEEL: But why give these millionaires...

Senator COLEMAN: Are you listening?

Mr. THEEL: CEO's these golden parachutes?

Senator COLEMAN: We took those out...

Mr. THEEL: You're - they're in there.

Senator COLEMAN: You know, it's out.

Mr. THEEL: No. Is it a hundred percent out?

Senator COLEMAN: No, Bill, you just shifted gears on me.

Mr. THEEL: Is it a hundred percent out?

Senator COLEMAN: You just shifted gears on me.

Mr. THEEL: Is it a hundred percent out?

Senator COLEMAN: We estimate...

Mr. THEEL: No way. See you guys, you talk a big talk, but you don't carry out.

WELNA: The man declares he won't support Coleman because of the bailout vote. Coleman's not surprised.

Senator COLEMAN: If I lose this election, it'll be because of that vote. I don't think there's any question about that.

WELNA: Coleman's run many ads attacking Al Franken. But when a recent poll showed a majority of Minnesotans turned off by those negative ads, Coleman declared he was swearing them off and called on others to do the same. Critics say it's simply making virtue out of necessity, a judgment Coleman rejects.

Senator COLEMAN: It's not about making something out of necessity. All the consultants will tell you the way to win this race is, in fact, to keep beating up on your opponent.

WELNA: So, why did you pull them?

Senator COLEMAN: Because of just what you saw here and what I saw around the state. I didn't want to feed into that.

WELNA: But TV ads attacking Franken have nonetheless continued.

(Soundbite of Republican campaign ad)

Unidentified Announcer #1: Franken can't manage our recovery. He can't even manage his own business. He was fined $25,000 for failing to provide workers' comp insurance for his employees. Al Franken, he'd make things worse.

WELNA: The ad's paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Coleman, in a new ad, claims he can't stop such attacks.

(Soundbite of Republican campaign ad)

Senator COLEMAN: I'm Norm Coleman. I can't control every ad out there, but I'm proud to approve this one.

WELNA: And the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee was quick to produce a putdown.

(Soundbite of Democratic campaign ad)

Unidentified Announcer #2: Calling for a suspension of negative ads after smearing your opponent? Shameless. There are some things Minnesotans are willing to believe. For everything else, there's Norm Coleman.

WELNA: Meanwhile, Democratic rival Franken has been campaigning in traditionally Republican strongholds. In Owatonna, a town of 24,000, about a hundred people packed the local VFW on a Saturday afternoon.

(Soundbite of applause)

WELNA: In this county that President Bush carried four years ago, Franken gets a warm reception. He too acknowledges the obvious.

(Soundbite of Franken campaign rally)

Mr. AL FRANKEN (Democratic Candidate for Senator, Minnesota): These are tough times.

Unidentified Child: Yes.

Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: And unlike his rival Coleman, Franken pointedly brings up the $700 billion financial package.

Mr. FRANKEN: I opposed this bailout, and I opposed it for a number of reasons, one of which was the rush, the rush. It reminded me of the rush to war.

WELNA: Afterward, registered Republican Marcia Cadrey says Franken has made a sale.

Ms. MARCIA CADREY (Registered Republican): I think I'm going to vote for Franken, but I had come in here kind of undecided.

WELNA: There are other signs Franken's fortunes are rising. Last month, he beat Coleman two-to-one in fundraising. For Republican political analyst Sarah Janacek, he's on a roll.

Ms. SARAH JANACEK (Republican Political Analyst): I mean, no question, Al Franken has improved dramatically as a candidate in the last month. No question about that.

WELNA: Joining Franken in going after Coleman is the third man in the race, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley. At their third debate last week, Barkley lit into Coleman for the economic meltdown.

Mr. DEAN BARKLEY (Senatorial Candidate, Independence Party): This happened on your watch. We're all paying the price right now. This is the price we're paying for bad government. If you were in Enron right now, you'd probably be indicted, not running for re-election.

WELNA: Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier says Barkley is a man to keep an eye on.

Professor STEVEN SCHIER (Political Science, Carleton College): Dean Barkley is a wildcard, and his impact on the election result is really unpredictable.

WELNA: Fewer than one-fifth of Minnesotans backed Barkley in recent polls. That likely saps some support from Franken, but it also means Coleman has two challengers trying to take away his job. David Welna, NPR News, St. Paul, Minnesota.

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