Grams, a strict conservative who failed in a 2006 bid to return to Congress, has hinted for months that he might run for Senate as an independent to show conservative displeasure with the state of the GOP. "I do like Norm, but boy, if he wants to court the middle and the moderates he is leaving a lot of us behind," Grams said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Coleman said he doesn't agree with Grams' assessment. He said conservatives should be satisfied if for no other reason than his reelection would prevent Democrats from getting closer to a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
"I'm there and I'm voting for (Supreme Court justices) John Roberts and Sam Alito," Coleman said. "That speaks volumes and I am sure that conservatives in our party respect that and recognize the importance of that."
Coleman moves that have irked Grams and other conservatives include joining an override of President Bush's veto of the recent federal farm bill; his vote for the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP); several votes against authorizing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and moderate-sounding comments on issues like global climate change and immigration reform.
Even more irritating to some conservatives are several recent examples where Coleman and his surrogates have stressed his work with the state's popular Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar, including a television ad sponsored by an independent group that pointed out how Coleman "teamed with Amy Klobuchar" to secure federal funding after the 35W bridge collapse.
"A lot of conservatives don't like Amy Klobuchar," said Andy Aplikowski, a conservative blogger and local GOP activist in the Twin Cities suburbs.
Still, plenty of prominent Minnesota conservatives are more supportive of Coleman. Annette Meeks, a former Minnesota GOP official and one-time aide to Newt Gingrich, called Coleman a "big city conservative" who lives up to an old Ronald Reagan maxim that you only need to agree with your political allies about 80 percent of the time.
"I disagree with him on a few things but not on the core principles of the conservative movement," Meeks said. She pointed out that Coleman has been anti-abortion since before he left the Democratic Party for the Republicans, and has consistently voted in favor of lower taxes and a strong national defense.
For a time in 2007, it appeared as if Coleman might actually have a conservative challenger for the Republican endorsement. Joe Repya, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and Vietnam, Gulf War and Iraq veteran, flirted with a run before deciding that Coleman would have the institutional support.
Repya declined this week to comment on Coleman's conservative credentials, saying only he considered Coleman to be lucky that his likely Democratic opponent is former comedian Al Franken, who's widely disliked by conservatives.
"He knew that Al Franken would be the easiest candidate to beat because he can make the whole election about Al Franken and not Norm Coleman," Repya said. "It looks like he's getting his wish."
Minnesota's Democratic Party and the Franken campaign have been attacking Coleman from the other direction, trying to tie him in voters' minds to the Bush administration and Republican policies. "(Coleman) definitely has a needle to thread," said Tom Horner, a PR executive and former Republican strategist who advised Coleman's gubernatorial campaign in 1998.
All the conservatives contacted for this story said they probably would wind up voting for Coleman. But they said the more he moves to the middle, the more it will cost him the energy of grass roots volunteers who work to get out the vote and convince their friends and neighbors to vote for Republicans.
"We'll go out and vote for him, but I don't know if anybody's terribly excited," Marianne Stebbins, a longtime state GOP activist and the chairwoman of Ron Paul's campaign in Minnesota. "I think the energy is going to go to other places."
Norm Coleman is in a lose lose situation with this. His big gift is Al Franken as an opponent.