More than two months after the final ballots were cast, electoral officials in Minnesota signalled yesterday that they were ready at last to declare Al Franken, the political satirist turned neophyte politician, the winner in the marathon US Senate contest against the Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by a tiny margin of 225 votes.
The announcement, expected late yesterday from the state's election board, in theory marks the end of a tortuous statewide recount process that began immediately after election day when the returns showed Mr Coleman ahead but by too few votes to make him the definitive winner. As the recount progressed, Mr Coleman, a first-term senator and former mayor of St Paul, gradually saw his lead reversed.
Not everyone is ready to declare the race over, however. State law requires a seven-day waiting period between the declaration of the winner by the board and its formal certification. During that time, anyone can file objections to the outcome with the courts. Officials for Mr Coleman were indicating that he was likely to do so.
Any legal manoeuvres by Mr Coleman are likely to focus on the handling of absentee ballots. He is expected to contend that a small batch of absentee forms were counted twice during the recount process, while another consignment of about 650 ballots from areas of the state thought to favour him were improperly rejected.
Cullen Sheehan, the campaign manager for Senator Coleman, said that "hundreds" of people will be disenfranchised if the decision to seat Mr Franken is allowed. "We remain convinced that this process is broken and, as a result, the numbers being reported will not be accurate or valid," he said. The collapsed popularity of George Bush, to whom Mr Coleman was closely allied, and the momentum behind Barack Obama in the presidential race, should have given Mr Franken a fair wind going into polling day in November. In the end, however, he was denied a straightforward victory as enough people in Minnesota worried about his sometimes rambunctious past as a political fun-poker and alumnus of Saturday Night Live.
No one could have predicted the gap between the two men would be so astonishingly narrow. State election officials deemed the recount over late on Saturday after tallying a final consignment of 933 wrongly rejected absentee ballots. That gave Mr Franken his putative 225-vote lead out of nearly three million cast statewide.
In Washington, the Democratic Senate leadership was already insisting that the uncertainty for Minnesotans should be brought to a close and that Mr Franken should be allowed to take his seat without delay. Formally installing Mr Franken would increase the Democrat majority to 58 of the 100 seats in the chamber.
"While there are still possible legal issues that will run their course, there is no longer any doubt who will be the next senator from Minnesota," Chuck Schumer, the senior senator from New York, said in a statement. "With the Senate set to begin meeting on Tuesday to address the important issues facing the nation, it is crucial that Minnesota's seat not remain empty, and I hope this process will resolve itself as soon as possible."
Mr Franken, 57, was a founding member of the Saturday Night Live satirical show on NBC that surged to the top of the ratings in America last year thanks to Tina Fey and her mimicking of Sarah Palin. Over recent years, however, Mr Franken has wandered the country's political landscape more visibly anchoring a talk show on the left-leaning Air America radio network and writing books including Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.
His decision to run for the US Senate raised eyebrows, with some critics worrying that his past in comedy made him too risky a candidate. He indeed found himself on the defensive on several occasions during the campaign, for example over a joke he once proposed to his peers at SNL that revolved around rape. He also stumbled when questions arose about lapses in his record of paying personal and business taxes.
In his own words
"I do personal attacks only on people who specialise in personal attacks."
"It's easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world."
"To make the argument that the media has a left or right-wing, or liberal or conservative bias, is like asking if the problem with al-Qa'ida is do they use too much oil in their hummus?"
"When the President said he was against nation-building, I didn't realise he meant our nation"
"I trademarked the word 'funny'. So when Fox calls me 'unfunny', they're violating my trademark."
"If you're going to do a movie about Reagan you do it about the fact ... he armed Saddam, he armed Iran, he armed two thirds of the Axis of Evil."