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Minnesota senate race winds into high gear

By Scott Wente

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - The U.S. Senate candidates are sprinting toward Nov. 4, but it may be Minnesota voters who grow tired during the next eight weeks of hearing what they have been told for months.

Fresh off primary victories, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken last week talked about debates and ramped up their campaigns, but returned to the same arguments that so far have framed the race.

Meanwhile, ex-Sen. Dean Barkley found himself in the middle of it all after defeating six fellow Independence Party candidates in the primaries. Barkley, who was appointed to a brief U.S. Senate term by Gov. Jesse Ventura after the late Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a 2002 airplane crash, renewed his key campaign message, too. Franken and Coleman "are the same old, same old," he said.

Franken hit the campaign trail late last week, speaking in St. Paul before touring southern Minnesota cities to tout a college tuition relief plan. He was coming off a primary victory in which he gained 65 percent of the vote and beat six opponents.

"We know the country's been going in the wrong direction," Franken told supporters at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Community Center. "We know that our government has been taken over by special interests. And in 55 days, we can choose to take it back."

"It's the choice of more of the same and a new direction," he added in a speech billed as new but that included many of the themes Franken has campaigned on for more than a year.

Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said they have no plans to deviate from continuing to emphasize the senator's record of service. The campaign unveiled three new television ads to back that up; the ads feature Minnesotans who support Coleman.

Coleman said in an interview the key issue for voters will be deciding who can bridge the "bitter partisan divide affecting Washington."

"I think Minnesotans will have a very clear choice in this campaign," he said.

Coleman stressed that he will target the nearly 30 percent of Democrats who favored attorney Priscilla Lord Faris over Franken.

"There are a lot of Priscilla Lord Faris voters I'd love to welcome to my side," Coleman said after he won his primary with 91 percent of the vote. "Clearly there's a big chunk of Democrats out there who have concerns about Franken's experience, have concerns about his positions."

"Those folks are going to be looking for a home," Coleman added.

Franken said those Faris voters will rally behind his campaign.

"I think all Democrats will come home," he said.

Franken and Coleman said there should be around four debates in their race and that Barkley should be included. Barkley, who wants six debates, said he hopes to do well.

Most debate sponsors already have invited him, he said. He is picking up 8 percent in polls, and most debates require a candidate to have 5 percent to be invited.