WASHINGTON - -After a fierce legal battle and a vote recount that stretched on for seven months, the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday that Democrat Al Franken should be certified as the winner in the state's U.S. Senate race. Two hours after the ruling was announced, Republican Norm Coleman conceded defeat.

Franken said at a news conference that he was humbled "not just by the closeness of this election but by the responsibility that comes with this position. I can't wait to get started," he added.

Standing outside his Minnesota home, Coleman told reporters: "The election of November 2008 is over. ... It's time to look forward and not look back." Coleman said he was at peace with the outcome, adding that he would not pursue further legal appeals and would respect the court's decision in the longest election in the state's history.

"It's time for Minnesota to come together under the leaders it's chosen and move forward," Coleman said.

In a statement, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, said he intended to sign the election certificate Tuesday officially certifying Franken as the winner.

In its ruling, the court rejected Coleman's contention that thousands of absentee ballots in the Senate race had been illegally excluded.

The decision stated that "Al Franken received the highest number of votes legally cast and is entitled under [Minnesota law] to receive the certificate of election as United States Senator from the State of Minnesota."

Franken's victory gives the Democratic caucus 60 votes in the Senate, enough to overcome Republican filibuster attempts.

However, the poor health of Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia also factor into the equation. And many centrist senators are notoriously independent on major issues and cannot always be counted on to vote with the caucus, which includes two independents.

The Democratic caucus also includes Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who defected from the Republican Party this year and who has taken delight at times in charting his own course and frustrating both parties. However, Specter could face a difficult primary challenge next year as he seeks re-election and might have to prove his Democratic bona fides to reassure voters back home.

Franken cautioned that he will be no Democratic automaton. "The way I see it, I'm not going to Washington to be the 60th senator. I'm going to Washington to be the second senator for Minnesota," he said.

Still, Franken's vote will be crucial, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

Franken, Reid said, "will play a crucial role as we work to strengthen our economy, ensure all Americans can access and afford quality health care, make our country more energy independent, confirm the president's outstanding nominee to the Supreme Court and tackle the many other challenges we face."

Since the Senate is in recess until after July Fourth, the earliest that Franken could be seated is next week.

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