As Democratic congressional contenders Tarryl Clark and Maureen Reed compete for cash, they're walking a tight rope.

They must appeal to Democratic activists now without taking stands that could come back to haunt them later with other voters in their Sixth Congressional District showdown with conservative Republican incumbent Michele Bachmann.

Signaling a tough race for the DFL endorsement and nomination, Clark and Reed are off to fast fundraising starts more than a year before the election.

But Bachmann has started even faster, according to new government reports.

Their early season fundraising is happening amid the turbulent political waters of the health care debate, where the solutions that resonate with party loyalists may spell trouble next year as Reed and Clark try to more broadly woo voters in a district that leans Republican.

Reed accepts one health care provision that appeals to liberals, but rejects another that would raise the ire of conservatives. Clark hasn't taken a firm stand on some of the more controversial House proposals.

None of that surprises Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who has closely followed Sixth District races and the health care debate in Congress.

"These two candidates are right in the middle of a fairly large group of Democrats from moderate to conservative districts ... who are a little bit nervous about how far to go" on the health proposals, Smith said.

"I think eventually these two candidates are going to be pushed to make more commitments by Democratic activists if they want the endorsement," he said.

Clark, a DFL state senator from St. Cloud, is cool to House proposals imposing penalties for people who refuse to buy insurance, and says she can't say whether she will favor a proposal for a government alternative to private insurance.

"It depends what else is going to be with it and what the cost is," she said.

She is critical of a House proposal for a health surcharge on households earning more than $350,000 a year and on individuals earning more than $280,000, and emphasizes wringing inefficiencies out of the health care system to pay for reform.

"To the extent there are extra costs and we can't figure out how to squeeze the dollars out, then clearly we have to look at some other options," she said, referring to raising taxes on the wealthy. "That may be one way to do so."

Reed, a physician, says she opposes the House tax proposal, and also says the government hasn't done enough to cut wasteful health care spending.

"I have trouble with tax increases to fund something where we haven't solved the underlying problem," she said.

But Reed has aligned herself with House liberals regarding a government alternative to private health insurance.

"I'm OK with the way it is right now," Reed said. "I think a public option is a reasonable way to go if it competes on equal footing with private options that are already out there."

Smith said Democratic challengers in moderately conservative districts may attempt to "just muddle through" the health care debate, hoping the issue will be decided before they seek the party endorsement.

While Clark has said she will abide by the DFL endorsement next spring, Reed has said she won't necessarily do so, setting up a potential primary battle.

Building a war chest

Clark, who entered the race in July, raised $308,000 over the past nine weeks, according to reports filed Thursday with the Federal Election Commission. Her campaign has $270,000 in cash on hand.

Reed raised $135,000 in the third quarter, but because she started earlier she has $311,000 on hand.

While such sums are significant a year before the election, they are just a start. Elwyn Tinklenberg, the moderate DFL candidate in 2008, raised $2.9 million, while Bachmann raised $3.5 million.

For the 2010 election, Bachmann raised $345,000 in the third quarter and has $617,000 cash on hand.

In a recent appeal for money, she criticized Democrats for "plowing forward with their government-run health care" and "their gangster government takeover of private industry."

She raised an additional $110,000 since the web-page campaign began, a figure that will be included in fourth quarter reports.

Patrick Doyle • 651-222-1210