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Pioneerpress.com - Norm Coleman: A Fighter Who Looks for an Edge

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Pioneerpress.com - Norm Coleman: A Fighter Who Looks for an Edge

Republican Norm Coleman is battling to hold on to his Senate seat in an ugly race against a well-funded Democratic challenger in a climate that doesn't favor incumbents. But no one who knows him will be surprised if he ends up on top.

By Dave Orrick

Of Norm Coleman's many improbable victories over the years, the one that stunned Billy Ellis the most was a table tennis upset.

The 21-6 landslide occurred two years ago in the basement of Coleman's St. Paul home as the U.S. senator romped Ellis, his best friend, brother-in-law and hitherto rival in the game that had spawned their friendship some 40 years ago.

Coleman, who previously had been all offense, had somehow rounded out his game with a defensive backhand. "And he's got this ... grin on his face — like he gets when he's up to no good. Then he unveils this robot."

Coleman's secret was a serving machine he'd kept hush-hush. "He must have been down there practicing till all hours of the night," Ellis says. "Then one night, he invites me over."

Coleman says unapologetically, "I've always been very competitive. ... It's good to have the edge on something."

Classic Norm.

And like so many maneuvers over Coleman's career, the tale of the "pingpong robot" can be read two ways:

For those who like him, he's pragmatic and determined. For those who don't, he's calculating and opportunistic.

Of course, it's a little bit of both. And of course, you already know this.

Minnesotans have gotten to know 59-year-old Coleman well. His career in Minnesota has spanned three decades — from his days in the state attorney general's office to his two successful runs for St. Paul mayor to his failed run for governor, to his first run for the Senate in 2002. The lore of the long-haired activist from a working-class New York Jewish family who evolved from a Democrat into a Republican deal maker has been told and retold.

Once again, the agile politician who offers his table tennis style as an analogy — "I'm an offensive player: a lot of topspin and move forward" — has found himself trying to win the late rally as the score tightens.

The trend of state polls in the Senate race has shown Democrat Al Franken closing in on or beating Coleman in a three-way race that also features Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley.

Coleman has sought to position himself as a get-it-done centrist who can reach across party lines and depart from President Bush. Franken has attempted to cast Coleman as a yes-man to Bush and his failed policies. Barkley, bereft of funds to wage much of an ad campaign, is pointing to the bickering as evidence that he's the true uniter.

This year's Senate race has been as spirited and ugly as any Minnesota has seen. Franken and Coleman — whose combined $34 million in contributions have made theirs the richest Senate contest in the country — have volleyed blurs of back-and-forth TV ads. Partisan groups on each man's behalf have fueled the fury with ads of their own.

Then, this month, Coleman changed the tack of his offense — although he denied the move was calculated — and pledged to end all of his campaign's attack ads.

But foreboding anti-Franken ads continue from pro-Coleman national groups technically outside his control. He has followed each such attack ad with a news release "reiterating" or "renewing" his request for the attacks to end, but he hasn't demanded it.

He also criticized the media, which in recent weeks had gone into areas of his personal life, ranging from his relationships with wealthy friends to blunt questions about his marriage.

He concedes the campaign has taken its toll.

"If you have $6.4 million directed at you, to tell people what a terrible human being you are, you get tarnished," he said in a recent interview with the Pioneer Press. "If you then go back and tell people what a horrible human being another person is, that is also going to rebound on you. I don't think it's a healthy process."

After the 2006 election, many political observers — especially Democratic strategists — put Coleman among a handful of the "most vulnerable" Republicans as they sought to surf a tide of anti-Republican sentiment, stemming primarily from failures in Iraq. Franken began campaigning soon after.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, marvels at where Coleman stands, especially considering state polls showing Democrat Barack Obama pulling away from Republican John McCain in the presidential race.

"McCain is behind by double digits in Minnesota, and Coleman is up against the best-financed Democrat in the country, and they're tied," Jacobs says. "Go figure, except that's Norm Coleman: He's stayin' alive."

How does a close-talking New York Jew with an accent keep the race tight in Sven and Ole country against an opponent hammering away at him for his support of an unpopular war during an economic disaster?

Watch Coleman cozy up to supporters in a rural Minnesota cafe, and you'll get a clue.

"He's very down-to-earth," says Rollie Lickness, a retired salesman who joined several dozen other supporters at the Viking Cafe in Fergus Falls, Minn., on a recent afternoon campaign stop.

"He's more sincere than most, and being a salesman, well, I hate to say, but I can tell when they're not," Lickness says after speaking briefly with Coleman.

For his part, Coleman seemed surprised when asked by a reporter about the observation that he's "touchy-feely" in a state that generally puts a premium on personal space.

"It's just kind of the way I grew up," he says, referring to his large family in Brooklyn. "I hug my brothers and I hug my sisters, and I kiss my mom and I kissed my dad. ... That's kind of who I am."

He's never considered trying to lose the accent but does allow that over the years, he's probably revved down the speed at which he talks. As a young prosecutor, he said, "I had to be careful that I was providing space between myself and the jurors."

It takes more than charisma to win a statewide office in Minnesota.

He's anti-abortion and pro-gun rights, but on many big issues, Coleman is nuanced. Of course, it's a philosophy that opponents say shows he stands for nothing. Coleman and supporters say it shows he's focused on solutions, not dogma.

Take Social Security's future.

At recent debates, Franken has tried to hammer Coleman on the notion — backed by Bush and Coleman — of privatizing portions of the federal retirement plan's funds.

Coleman's response is neither to deny nor to defend his position, which doesn't rule out some level of privatization. Nor does he prescribe a specific fix — and that's the point, he says: "It's bigger than one party."

In a recent interview, he elaborated on why he argues that a Social Security commission needs to be established, similar to the one that weighs closings of military bases:

"Let us participate in a process that has bipartisan sign-up, because that's the only way you're going to get it done. What I've learned in the Senate is that there are a number of issues that a single party can't solve, Social Security being one of them. Big ones: Medicare and Medicaid, the future of those. And I think I'm in a unique position to be part of the solution because I bring an experience and a history of being able to work with folks on the other side of the aisle to actually solve problems and make a difference."

On Iraq, Coleman has been a moving target.

He supported the invasion. (But he wasn't a senator when the vote was taken.) He has refused to say the decision to invade was a mistake and says he doesn't want to re-examine it.

"Do I think that there were terrible mistakes made in the handling of this war? Absolutely," he says. "So, those folks who say it was a mistake? I don't use those words. ... I don't want to ever have to go to somebody and say that, 'Your son or daughter died for a mistake.' If Al (Franken) or anybody else wants to say that, I'm not going to. I'm not looking back."

On the so-called Iraq "surge" of forces to turn the tide, he was highly skeptical. Opponents argued it was the popular stance. When violence in Iraq fell, Coleman conceded.

"I was wrong, by the way, on that," he said earlier in the campaign. "Leave it to the generals."

To explain such shifting positions is one thing. To sell it to voters is another.

"He's honest," says Ellie Anderson, a retired teacher from Battle Lake, Minn.

After Coleman joined Anderson and two friends for a few pleasantries in Fergus Falls, Anderson said her years-long impressions from afar were only strengthened by hearing his voice up close.

"He's exactly like I thought he would be," she says. "Honest."

That's a big Coleman asset, says Tom Fabel, a Minneapolis attorney who tried cases with Coleman in the attorney general's office and later served as his deputy mayor in St. Paul.

"He was the kind of prosecutor who'd try to relate to jurors to make his case, and that wasn't easy; he was new to Minnesota," Fabel says. "But he was a charmer, and juries loved him."

Fabel tells a story of a successful conviction the pair earned in Duluth in the 1980s. Coleman, then a newcomer, sat for the whole trial as second chair; Fabel did all the questioning of witnesses and talking to the jury. After the guilty verdict, the attorneys had a chance to speak with jurors.

"All the jurors wanted to talk to Norm, especially the women," Fabel recalled, chuckling with disbelief decades later. "I tried the whole case, but they all wanted to talk to him. I knew right then and there he had some gifts that I didn't have and had a future in public life."

Indeed, he did.

Along the way, he and his wife, Laurie Coleman — an aspiring actress who has drawn attention for, among other things, posing in lingerie for the Washington Post — had four children, two of whom died in infancy of a rare genetic disorder.

While the Colemans have publicly reflected on the emotions of burying two children, and while their daughter, Sarah, has pitched her dad's candidacy in TV ads in both Senate campaigns, this month Coleman declared certain family matters "off-limits."

Curiously, it was only after a steady drumbeat of reporters' questions about his wife's affiliation with a risk-management firm that many learned Laurie Coleman's résumé is thicker than actress and model. She's also a licensed insurance broker.

It was a simple disclosure of public information, but it hadn't been reported. It also cast aside one piece of evidence Coleman's opponents use to suggest that the couple personally benefit from his position.

Want the best way to prompt a Coleman critic to say, "Yeah, but ..."? Just utter the words, "the man who brought hockey back to Minnesota."

"It's true," says St. Paul's current mayor, Chris Coleman, who isn't related to Norm Coleman and is one of Franken's biggest boosters. It's hard to find anyone to dispute that without Norm Coleman's unrelenting determination, the Xcel Energy Center wouldn't have been built and the Wild wouldn't be filling its seats. Yeah, but ...

"Norm was very much the beneficiary of one of the largest economic expansions in the country," Chris Coleman says, echoing a line of criticism common among St. Paul leaders today. "Norm bragged about the fact that he didn't increase the amount of money that the city is collecting in property taxes for eight years. ... But that put the city in a very precarious position by not even keeping up with inflationary measures."

The result, said Chris Coleman and others: A legacy of underfunded city services that leaders are still trying to address.

Regardless of Norm Coleman's legacy, the coup of the X cemented his reputation as a deal maker, and he points to it frequently. But closing the deal, the senator emphasizes, isn't about a smooth-talking sales pitch.

It's about relationships, he said, especially if you're in the minority party.

And if he is able to close the deal with voters Nov. 4, what would he do differently in a second six-year term?

"I don't think it's a matter of doing it differently," he said. "There is a benefit to experience in the Senate, a benefit to being more effective because of stronger relationships and a greater ability to work with folks on the other side.

"I think I'm getting better. I don't think I was there in the beginning. ... I can tell you that over time, having forged relationships, that I am in a better position to do that, which I think is a benefit to the people of Minnesota."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, Rachel Drewelow and Mikel Sporer contributed to this report.

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