37 down, 215 to go: Franken edges to victory in recount

Comedian in epic struggle for Minnesota senate seat
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The former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken took the lead yesterday in a recount of the virtually tied US Senate race in Minnesota.

The Democrats are banking on victory to strengthen their Senate majority and help turn President-elect Barack Obama's ambitious agenda of reform into law with minimum delay.

Mr Franken's campaign announced that, for the first time since the recount began, he had pulled ahead of the Republican Senator, Norm Coleman.

The prospect of the controversial former entertainer joining the Senate has created a stir, although it may be weeks before the result is declared.

The race is so close that it is a near certainty that whatever the result of the recount, the courts will become involved in deciding the outcome.

However, a Republican victory in a re-run election in Georgia on Tuesday has already denied Mr Obama a 60-seat "super-majority" in the Senate, which he needed to override any Republican filibuster tactics.

In Minnesota, Mr Franken's campaign claimed he was ahead of Mr Coleman by 22 votes. There are 138,000 ballots left to count, with 94.3 per cent of the vote already counted. Thousands of ballots remain in limbo following challenges.

Officials are going through ballots box by box, looking for errors or ballots which were not counted on election day. One such box, left aside after a voting machine broke down, gave Mr Franken 91 votes and Mr Coleman 54.

In Georgia, Senator Saxby Chambliss trounced his challenger Jim Martin 58 to 42 per cent, giving the Republicans a ray of sunshine in a bleak landscape. Even the star powers of the former president Bill Clinton, his vice president Al Gore and the rapper Ludacris were not enough to persuade black voters in particular to revote.

The defeat highlighted some of Mr Obama's limitations now the euphoria of his election has receded. It is increasingly hard for the Democrats to pin the country's huge economic problems on the Republicans.

And it is an awkward time for Mr Obama, who is holed up in Chicago acting as a sort of shadow president. He holds daily press conferences but does not have the authority to do much beyond make appointments to his cabinet and issue advise to Democrats in Congress as they grapple with the country's deteriorating economy.

Yesterday, Mr Obama announced the appointment of New Mexico's Governor, Bill Richardson, as Commerce Secretary, the latest in a rapid-fire series of appointments to his cabinet before his 20 January inauguration.

The appointment is a consolation prize for Mr Richardson, who had high hopes of becoming Secretary of State before Hillary Clinton was picked. He is set to be the most prominent Hispanic in the Obama administration.

Mr Richardson developed a sideline career as a freelance diplomat while governor, dashing off to North Korea, Sudan, Cuba and Iraq and holding press conferences to announced diplomatic breakthroughs, to the consternation of the Bush White House.

Mr Obama said Mr Richardson was a leading "economic diplomat" and the "best person for the job".

In the Georgia re-run election, Mr Chambliss campaigned on denying the Democrats a clean sweep in Congress and stressed his opponent would tax and spend with abandon.

Perhaps wisely, Mr Obama did not show up in Georgia, thereby keeping the shine on his political image as he prepares for future battles.

And with 60 seats for the Democrats no longer a possibility, Mr Franken's fortunes have lost some of their urgency.

Speaking out Franken lets fly

*On executions: "Libby and Karl Rove are going to be executed [since] outing a CIA agent is treason. I don't know how I feel about it because I'm basically against the death penalty."

*On porn: In a 1995 Playboy column which resurfaced to trouble him, he told of a visit to a fictional sex institute and of taking part in activities with a "virtual sex machine".

*On sex: "[I asked human rights conference organisers to send me a girl.] She was a lesbian. Next time you do that, could you at least send two?"