Minnesota DFL voters on Tuesday narrowly decided that gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton has the right combination of money, message and political miles to lead them to victory.

After an achingly close night touched off fears of a recount, Dayton pulled ahead of Margaret Anderson Kelliher in the primary and now moves on in the race to be Minnesota's next governor. As of 7 a.m., with 98 percent of the vote counted, the former U.S. senator led Kelliher by more than 5,000 votes -- enough that no recount would be needed.

But even as Dayton's margin grew, the House speaker did not concede.

"We're not making any decisions," Kelliher told supporters shortly before 1 a.m. "Hang in there."

Dayton said he would not declare victory until she conceded. "I'm waiting for Speaker Kelliher to exercise her prerogative to wait for every vote to be counted," he said.

At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, Kelliher's campaign announced that she would hold a press conference at 3 p.m.

The timing of Kelliher's press conference suggests that the DFL unity rally that had been planned for 11 a.m. Wednesday would not happen. That rally was intended to bring all the DFL gubernatorial candidates together in a sign of solidarity.

Whether it occurs at that time or later, "We'll have a unity event," Dayton said.

For Dayton, who spent much of the night trailing the DFL-endorsed Kelliher, the primary victory was yet another comeback in a political career filled with ups and downs.

Now, he will carry the hopes of a party that has not captured the governor's office in 24 years.

Dayton, a former U.S. senator who pitched his candidacy on a "tax-the-rich" message, will go on to face Republican nominee Tom Emmer and the Independence Party's Tom Horner.

His win sets up a clear contrast for voters between anti-tax, anti-government Emmer and the tax-promoting Dayton, whom Kelliher accused of trying to turn Minnesota into the "all new taxes" state.

Two hours after the polls closed, the third major candidate in the DFL gubernatorial primary, Matt Entenza, admitted that voters did not pick him. He spent $5 million on his own campaign with hopes of earning at least 150,000 votes. By press time, he'd picked up about 80,000 votes.

"It's been a long night, and it's going to be a little bit longer night. So we're not making any decisions," Kelliher said. Shortly after she asked to supporters to "hang in there" she left her victory party at Minneapolis' Jax Cafe and it broke up by 1 a.m.

Dayton, a veteran of 30 years of campaigning, had predicted a tight contest earlier in the evening.

He was right. Although Kelliher held a strong lead through most of the night in metro counties, Dayton's totals overtook hers as the northern areas of the state checked in.

What's up next?

Dayton will face off in a general election against the Republican Emmer, a Delano legislator who quickly cruised to victory against nominal primary opposition.

"Are you ready to work? Are you ready to win? Are you ready to take back your state?" he demanded of his backers at St. Paul O'Gara's restaurant.

Horner, a Republican commentator turned IP candidate, trounced upstart challenger Rob Hahn early in the night.

Pre-primary polls have shown that Horner could draw a portion of his support from moderate Republicans.

Dayton, Emmer and Horner will head into a bruising general election race that has already garnered national attention for its stark lines on tax and spending issues.

Dayton leaves the most expensive gubernatorial primary in state history -- the three DFL candidates dumped more than $9 million -- and enters one where his millions could easily trump his competitors.

The DFL candidates largely avoided damaging one another too deeply in the primary. Matters were less polite in the lower dollar and less organized Independence Party.

Well before results were in, Horner was so confident of victory that his campaign sent out a list of Wednesday events and news conferences.

After he was declared the winner, he walked to the podium to the toots of party favor horns in the small Independence Party office.

As he thanked his supporters for their work, he referenced the JetBlue worker who had made the news for quitting in a rain of curses before grabbing beer and exiting his plane on an escape slide.

"I think there are a lot of people in Minnesota who feel like that," Horner said. He's got a challenge ahead for him -- he had set himself a goal of raising $2.5 million and had about $2.3 million to go as of July.

Kelliher's DFL endorsement and Entenza's $5 million in personal spending were no match for Dayton's experience and name recognition.

Dayton's journey

For Dayton, it was a second -- and third act -- of his political career.

An enigmatic department store heir, Dayton has spent much of his adult life in or running for public office. He won an auditor's race in the 1990 and landed what could have been his political capstone -- a U.S. Senate seat -- in 2000.

That year he beat back a host of DFL opponents and went on to oust Republican U.S. Sen. Rod Grams after spending nearly $12 million of his own money.

After just one term, he quit the Senate after being named a bumbler by Time magazine and giving himself, and the entire Senate, an F for progress.

This year is Dayton's is second attempt at the governor's office -- he lost a 1998 primary for the office. But this time he had high-voting seniors on his side. He won their loyalty a decade ago when, during his Senate campaign, he sponsored buses to Canada to help them buy cheaper drugs. He kept their loyalty by stressing their issues during his one Senate term and went back to them again this year, sending his running mate to more than 50 senior centers before the primary.

Dayton, who bucked the DFL endorsement, also had key unions helping him.

On primary night, Eliot Seide, the executive director of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 5, was making calls on Dayton's behalf at the candidate's headquarters.

One union member at Dayton's primary night gathering said the candidate was a kindred spirit -- even though he's a millionaire.

"He stands for the little guy," said Michael Lefkowitz of St. Louis Park.

Staff writers Pat Doyle, Eric Roper, Jenna Ross, Anthony Lonetree, Alex Ebert, Kevin Duchschere and Laurie Blake contributed to this report.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164