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Cost of Contested Minnesota Senate Race Tops $50 Million

ST. PAUL, Minnesota -- Senate foes Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman stepped off Minnesota's campaign trail last November after sinking $37 million into commercials, consultants and statewide tours. 

Lawyers' meters are about the only things running now. 

Seven months after the Coleman-Franken race was supposed to end, the rivals seldom hold public events and have shaved their payrolls to about a half-dozen employees each. But both still search eagerly for cash -- hauling in at least $13 million between them since Election Day on Nov. 4 -- to feed a legal battle that reaches a critical point on Monday. 

That's when the Minnesota Supreme Court hears arguments over the nation's longest Senate vacancy in 34 years. 

Coleman, who had been the incumbent, trails by 312 votes. He wants justices to instruct a trial court to open 4,400 rejected absentee ballots. Former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Franken, potentially a critical 60th Senate vote for Democrats, hopes the court sweeps aside the appeal and demands that he get the election certificate required to take office. 

There's no telling how fast Minnesota's highest court will act. And if Coleman loses, he could file a federal lawsuit or petition the U.S. Supreme Court, which isn't certain to take the case. 

What is certain is that the pivotal seat will come at a handsome price: The combined $50 million Coleman and Franken have spent so far chasing victory is more than double what it cost candidates in 2002 when Coleman captured what had been a Democratic seat. 

The total encompasses official figures reported through March to federal campaign regulators as well as preliminary estimates of more recent activity, which the campaigns supplied to The Associated Press. It doesn't include what political parties and outside groups devoted separately to the race and recount. 

"When you've invested this much time, energy and money, it's hard to call it to an end yourself," said Thomas E. Mann, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution. "You need someone external to do it." 

Neither Franken nor Coleman granted interview requests ahead of the Supreme Court showdown. 

Most of the attention is on Coleman, who has been behind since December. Franken trailed prior to the statewide recount, but he pulled ahead late in the process and padded his lead during a trial triggered by Coleman's lawsuit. 

While Democrats are pressuring Coleman to concede, he's received steady backing from Republicans to press on. 

Steve Lombardo, a Republican strategist and pollster in Washington, said there is little doubt Coleman will try to take his case forward if the next ruling goes against him. 

"This is a worthwhile endeavor and while the chances are less than 50-50 probably, there's no reason not to see it all the way to the finish," Lombardo said, adding, "This has become a firewall." 

A Franken win would give Democrats and the two Senate independents who align with them the power to end Republican filibusters, a legislative maneuver to delay a bill from coming to a final vote. It takes 60 votes to cut off Senate debate. With a comfortable House majority, Democrats would find it easier to push through President Barack Obama's agenda. 

"The stakes have never been this high," Coleman wrote in his latest fundraising letter. "Our ability to overturn this flawed recount process -- and preserve checks and balances against the near total control of our government by Obama and the Democrats -- rests in your hands." 

In a recent financial appeal, Franken was almost apologetic for going back to his donor base again. "But," he said, "it's expensive to keep defending our win in court. And we need your continued support so that our legal team can continue its work." 

Mann suspects Coleman will find money tougher to come by if he loses this round and contributors sense he is merely stalling an inevitable outcome. 

"There comes a point where just delaying won't be enough for private donors," Mann said.