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Senate race a fiscal record-setter

ST. PAUL - The candidates likely will spend more than $30 million on Minnesota's U.S. Senate race. That's just the half of it - literally.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger Al Franken have raised more than $32 million, but experts predict that much also could be spent by outside groups trying to influence the Nov. 4 election.

The candidates' prolific fund-raising - Franken leads all candidates across the country; Coleman is fourth - makes Minnesota's contest the most expensive of the country's 35 Senate races this year.

"You've got an incumbent senator who's running a tight race," University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs said of Coleman. "He's going to be pushing up the juice, and he's a very good fund-raiser. Then you've got Franken, who's got big-time connections around the country and Hollywood."

And, Jacobs noted, the race consistently has been listed as among the most competitive since the beginning of the 2008 election cycle.

"It's the perfect storm of cash galore," he said.

Cash has flown most freely to Franken. The Democrat developed a donor base in the state to accompany a broad network of supporters elsewhere.

Franken raised about $15.5 million through the end of September, according to recent Federal Election Commission filings. He spent more than $13 million, leaving him with $2.7 million on hand.

Coleman had raised $11.5 million, spending $8.3 million. That left him with nearly $4 million available.

The candidates continue to raise funds. Just Thursday, for instance, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani helped fill Coleman's campaign coffers during a Minnesota visit.

Coleman spokesman Luke Friedrich said Franken's large, national fund-raising network has upped the overall cost of the race.

"Obviously, if it's a close race, that certainly factors in," Friedrich said.

Franken spokeswoman Colleen Murray said the Democrat is relying on small-dollar donations.

"We're incredibly proud of our people-powered, grassroots campaign to send Al Franken to Washington to change this country," she said.

The Independence Party's Dean Barkley has raised only a tiny fraction of what Franken and Coleman have amassed. Barkley reported $14,374 in contributions, though he only has been campaigning since mid-July.

Minnesotans aren't just seeing a blitz of candidate-funded advertising. Political committees and outside groups may spend just as much on the race, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report.

Senate campaign finance policies make it difficult to determine before the election exactly how much is being spent by groups such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in a particular race.

"Let's just say it's going to be significant," Duffy said.

The amount of spending in a race is related to the cost of advertising, the contest's "closeness," and what's at stake, Duffy said. This year, Democrats believe they could reach a 60-seat supermajority in the Senate.

Minnesota's race is the costliest this year in part because there are no Senate races in states with the most expensive media markets, such as California and New York.

Candidate fund-raising in this year's race crushes previous Senate races in Minnesota. By the end of the 2006 race, Democrat Amy Klobuchar had spent just over $9 million to defeat Mark Kennedy. The Republican spent $9.7 million in his failed bid to go from the U.S. House to the Senate.

In 2002, Coleman spent $10 million on his path to election over Walter Mondale, who stepped in after the death of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Even in 2000, when Democrat Mark Dayton self-funded his campaign with $12 million, he and former GOP Sen. Rod Grams only spent a combined $19 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The cost of to buy ads in the Twin Cities market is a factor in Minnesota's expensive races, Duffy said.

"And the more important part is, when's the last time you had an easy Senate race?" she asked. "It's the nature of the competition, in some respects."