WASHINGTON - For Democrats trying to win back control of Congress this fall, northern Minnesota seems to have it all:

A freshman Republican in a district that went Democrat for more than a half century; a solid working-class voter base with a strong tradition of supporting organized labor; and a swarm of party activists smarting from the upset loss of veteran DFL warhorse Jim Oberstar in the GOP election wave of 2010.

In a race that will draw money and attention from around the nation, the Democrats' dilemma is that they don't have a single candidate to challenge first-term Rep. Chip Cravaack. Instead, they have three.

Despite a resounding party endorsement this month for former congressman Rick Nolan, Democrats hoping to unseat Cravaack are headed for a three-way clash in the Aug. 14 primary.

Facing off against Nolan are former state Sen. Tarryl Clark, by far the best-funded DFLer in the race, and former Duluth City Council President Jeff Anderson, a native of Ely, Minn.

This is not the script Democratic leaders had envisioned in their effort to win a new majority in the U.S. House.

"I said 'Try to resolve this within the DFL convention and come out united,'" recounted Oberstar, who has spoken to all three candidates. "Having a primary is troublesome because all three are going to have to spend some amount of money. And no matter what they say now, eventually they will be critical of each other."

Democrats acknowledge that to have any chance of winning back the House in November, they have to reclaim Democratic-leaning districts like Minnesota's Eighth, which stretches from the far north Twin Cities suburbs to the Canadian border.

"Of all the seats held by incumbent Republicans," said Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, "Minnesota's Eighth is the most Democratic."

Seeking a message of unity

Democrats in the Minnesota congressional delegation tried to send a message of unity this month in a Washington fundraiser for Nolan, who is anything but a shoe-in to win a contest that Clark has dubbed the "people's primary."

"We really truly are united," said Nolan, claiming victory in a succession of straw polls, caucuses and county conventions this year. "We have as united a front as you ever want to see."

But Clark has the money. Building on her unsuccessful run against Rep. Michele Bachmann in 2010, Clark has reported raising more than $871,000 in the race so far, rapidly catching up to Cravaack, who has pulled in more than $1 million, Federal Election Commission records show. Nolan, by comparison, has brought in a little more than $200,000, and Anderson trails with a modest $114,000.

Nolan, who served three terms in Congress in the 1970s, maintains close contacts with such Washington Democrats as Rep. George Miller of California, who was part of the same post-Watergate freshman class.

According to Nolan, some Democratic leaders are "a little disturbed we're having a primary, because they're prepared to put a tremendous amount of money and help and consulting services into the campaign."

Now, he said, "they can't do it until the primary is settled."

In fact, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reportedly earmarked $2.9 million for media campaigns in Minnesota. That's one of the party's biggest buys in the nation, with much of it believed to be aimed at a general election showdown with Cravaack.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, has already gone on the air with television ads supporting Cravaack. Clark, too, is advertising on the radio.

'Unsettled times'

While Democrats rush headlong into a primary battle, Cravaack has so far adopted an incumbent strategy of avoiding overt campaigning. "While the DFL candidates will continue to battle each other in the coming months, Chip Cravaack has stayed above the fray and remains focused on creating more jobs for the Eighth District," said GOP strategist Ben Golnik, a Cravaack campaign adviser.

Meanwhile, Clark decided to skip a DFL endorsement battle with Nolan this winter, arguing that it is more important to reach out to a broader base of voters in a primary election than to appeal to several hundred party delegates in a district nominating convention.

"In these unsettled times, it's critical that we reach out to as many people as possible," she said. "The independents went the wrong way in 2010. They got sold a bill of goods by these Tea Partiers."

Anderson also passed on an endorsement battle, arguing that if there's going to be a primary election contest, he's going to be in it.

While Nolan supporters worry about the effect on party unity, Clark and Anderson have vowed to train their fire on Cravaack, not Nolan.

But behind the scenes, the intra-party sniping is in full swing. Anderson, despite deep Iron Range roots, is rated a long-shot. Nolan gets dinged privately as a relic from times past. Clark, who recently established a residence in Duluth, gets rapped for carpet-bagging, a charge that could take away one of Cravaack's biggest political problems: his family's decision to move to New Hampshire.

But some argue that despite the rivalries, one of the three DFLers will emerge from the primary a stronger candidate.

"I'd say in terms of the impact it will ultimately have on the race, we have three Democrats now who are traveling around the district and talking about Congressman Cravaack," Anderson said. "I think ultimately in November that will benefit Democrats."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.