ST. PAUL, Minn. – In Minnesota's high stakes U.S. Senate race, Republican Norm Coleman now appears to have a narrow lead over two-term Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone.
Wellstone's campaign polling shows the two candidates neck and neck, but the latest survey — conducted by the Coleman camp — shows the former St. Paul mayor slightly in front.
According to the National Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democrat-turned-Republican is leading by seven points, 49-42, with a four point margin of error.
That's the kind of number President Bush, who coaxed Coleman to run, likes to hear.
"I think it's important for you all to know that when Norm calls over there to Washington, I'll answer the phone," Bush promised during a St. Paul appearance to support Coleman last May.
Wellstone, known as the most liberal senator in the chamber, said there's a very good reason the president and the GOP want him out.
"I am a thorn in their side," he said.
Wellstone has fought against every major piece of the Bush agenda, including the 2001 tax cut.
In a television ad, he takes pride in that position.
"Wellstone has called for freezing tax cuts for those making $300,000 a year or more. Instead, Wellstone wants to fund our nation's education needs."
Wellstone, who is popular with senior citizens, unions and environmentalists, has won credit for his work on the farm bill and his positions on education, but he still has some challenges ahead, including facing negative feedback for a pledge he made six years ago to limit his time in the Senate to two terms.
With control of the Senate at stake, however, Wellstone said he decided he had to run for a third term.
"This is control of the United States Senate. I mean one race or two races could tip control of the Senate one way or the other," he said. "I thought I should not just walk away from this."
"And people in Minnesota will decide, of course," he added.
Coleman, who said he wants to cut business taxes, raise reimbursements to rural hospitals, and secure the future of Social Security, has also switched positions on an issue dear to Bush: oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He supported drilling last year, but now opposes it.
"Let that little pristine piece of the world be there," he said.
Coleman and Wellstone will spend a lot of time in the coming seven months campaigning in Minnesota's suburban and rural areas. Both campaigns believe that's where the undecided votes are and ultimately where the election will be won or lost come November.
Steve Brown is an author, radio broadcaster and seminary professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.