ST. PAUL - Mark Dayton apparently won the Democratic-Farmer-Laborite governor's nomination early today after northern Minnesota votes gave him the advantage over Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
The Associated Press declared Dayton the winner at 12:21 a.m. today after Kelliher led the primary election contest most of Tuesday night.
Dayton, a long-time state and federal official, took a slim lead with 91 percent of Minnesota's precincts reporting.
In unofficial returns just after midnight, Dayton had 41 percent (167,426 votes), with Kelliher showing 40 percent (167,091 votes). Matt Entenza, who conceded 90 minutes after the polls closed, had 18 percent.
Dayton took his first lead of the night when St. Louis County votes began to pour in.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said he is ready for a recount if needed. A primary election recount two years ago took three days. Ritchie says he is ready with a board to conduct a recount that includes Chief Justice Lori Gildea.
The race is different than the 2008 U.S. Senate race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, which ended after a recount and court case, partially because far fewer Minnesotans voted Tuesday than in that election. Also, since both Kelliher and Dayton are Democrats, they are less likely to drag out the contest.
A recount is mandatory if the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent of the total vote cast in the race.
St. Louis County was the largest one remaining to send in most of its votes late Tuesday, but a number of others such as Carlton, Cook, Mahnomen, Pine and Roseau also reported few votes.
Dayton said he expected his numbers to improve as St. Louis County and other Iron Range votes are counted. He credited his running mate, Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth, for the ticket doing well in the northeast.
Kelliher is the first woman candidate endorsed by a major party, but the two men in the race spent millions of dollars of their own money in the campaign.
Dayton, with decades in the public eye, hoped that senior citizens turned out in large numbers on a hot and sometimes rainy day to make the difference. Dayton was the leader of polls leading up to the election, in part because his family started the Dayton and Target department store chains and in part because he is a long-time public servant.
Kelliher and Entenza hoped their strategies of targeting specific potential voters would be more successful than the Dayton campaign's wooing of senior citizens.
Entenza conceded at 9:25 p.m.
"In a democracy, of course, the people speak," Entenza said.
It all boiled down to the relatively few voters who went to the polls Tuesday, fighting the heat, rain and a primary that came a month earlier than normal during busy a busy summer month. All those factors added up to what most observers predicted to be a light turnout in a state that leads the country in general election voting.
The Democratic-Farmer-Laborite winner will face Republican Tom Emmer and Tom Horner of the Independence Party. Emmer faced token opposition. Only Rob Hahn mounted a serious campaign against Horner, but Horner easily won.
Emmer said he was ready to take on any DFL candidate: "It won't matter because the message is the same."
In other races, Democratic incumbent Secretary of State Ritchie beat perennial candidate Dick Franson, DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson easily beat challenger Leo F. Meyer and Republican attorney general candidate Chris Barden won over Sharon Anderson, who regularly runs for the office.
In U.S. House races, party-endorsed Dan Powers in the 2nd Congressional District lost in the DFL primary to Shelley Madore, who faces U.S. Rep. John Kline, and in western Minnesota's 7th district GOP-endorsed Lee Byberg beat Alan Roebke for the right to face U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson.
Winners of Tuesday's primary advance to the Nov. 2 general election.
Kelliher had the advantage of being endorsed by the party's state convention, which brought with it manpower and lists of potential voters. She said with that, she could target potential voters without spending money to air television commercials for weeks before the election.
The secretary of state's office reported more than 30,000 absentee votes were cast in the election, more than any previous non-presidential year primary.
Democrats emphasize this year's governor race because they see an opening to get back into an office they last won 24 years ago. About 30 candidates jumped into the race soon after Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced he would not run for a third term.
In the governor campaign, Dayton, 63, emphasized one issue above all others: Income and property taxes need to rise for the richest Minnesotans.
While Dayton would boost income taxes on people earning $150,000 or more a year, Kelliher and Entenza set the mark at $250,000.
Dayton has been state auditor, state economic development commissioner and U.S. senator. The Minneapolis resident and heir to a department store fortune also ran for other offices and lost in a career devoted to public service.
Kelliher, 42, is ending her second term as House speaker, capping a 12-year house career. She touted her victory over Pawlenty in raising fuel taxes to increase transportation funding.
Entenza spent more than $5 million of his own money into the primary contest, with Dayton contributing less to his campaign. Dayton spent more than $3 million.
The money already spent is more than any other governor's race in state history.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co. Marty Owings of KFAI radio contributed to this story.