215 votes to go: Franken edges to victory in recount
The former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken is closer to victory in a recount of Minnesota's senate race. The Democrats are banking on his victory to help turn Barack Obama's ambitious reform agenda into law with minimum delay.
The result may not be known for weeks but a Republican victory in Georgia on Tuesday, where the Democratic candidate was crushed in a rerun election, has already denied the President-elect a 60-seat "super-majority" in the Senate.
In Minnesota, Mr Franken gained 37 votes, reducing the lead of his opponent, Norm Coleman, to 215 votes out of 2.9 million. The precise gap is hard to know because thousands of ballots remain in limbo after challenges.
Officials are going through ballots box by box, looking for errors or votes that 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, was not enough to persuade black voters in particular to revote.
The Republican victory denies the Democrats the 60 Senate seats that were needed to override opposition filibuster tactics. The defeat also highlighted some of Mr Obama's limitations now that the euphoria of the presidential 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 advice 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.
After seven years as Governor, he was keen to return to the centre of power in Washington and is set to become 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 announce diplomatic breakthroughs, much to the chagrin 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 run-off election, Mr Chambliss focused the attention of voters on the importance of denying the Democrats a clean sweep in Congress while stressing that his opponent would tax and spend with abandon. Guest appearances from the presidential candidate, John McCain, and his vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, helped buck up the vote.
Democrats and Republicans spent heavily on the race and dozens of Obama organisers poured into Georgia, keeping 25 offices open and pinning their hopes on an upset victory. Perhaps wisely, Mr Obama did not show up in Georgia, thereby keeping the sheen on his political image as he prepares for important battles ahead. The loss in Georgia takes much of the urgency off Mr Franken's fortunes.
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?"