Minnesota's sprawling southern First District has a history of electing congressmen who rise to national notice -- people like Al Quie, a Republican education policy leader before becoming governor, and Tim Penny, a Democratic fiscal hawk who was ahead of his time. The district's three-term incumbent, Democrat Tim Walz, has begun to attain similar stature. His work on congressional ethics and veterans affairs legislation has been truly distinguished.

Walz's strength makes the task that confronts the winner of the Aug. 14 Republican primary in the First District a daunting one. Understandably, GOP partisans are looking for a candidate whom they believe can defeat Walz. This newspaper's criterion for a primary endorsement was slightly different. We looked for the candidate more likely to give Walz the kind of competition that can make a good representative better.

Former state Rep. Allen Quist better fills that bill than state Sen. Mike Parry. Quist has been out of elective office since 1988. But the St. Peter farmer and recently retired government professor from Bethany Lutheran College demonstrates deeper knowledge of the issues that confront Congress and more ability to debate them with Walz this fall.

Quist, 67, has been a local and state Republican Party leader for nearly 30 years, and ranks among the engineers of the party's shift to the philosophical right. He and his energetic wife, Julie, a former district director for Sixth District U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, were forces to be reckoned with inside the state GOP well before his unsuccessful party-endorsed bid to topple Republican Gov. Arne Carlson in 1994.

Quist's sustained political involvement contrasts with Parry's briefer public career. The 59-year-old radio and pizza restaurant businessman served one term on the Waseca City Council, ending with a reelection defeat, and three years in the state Senate. Aligned with the Senate's most conservative faction, Parry chaired the Senate's State Government Innovation and Veterans Committee with a blend of charm and pugnacity.

Parry is not well-known among primary voters. He might have used his comparatively small war chest to tout his own assets. Instead, he's been bashing Quist's record. Among the things he dredged up is Quist's support in the 1980s for gas tax and cigarette tax increases, both of which occurred in the context of an overall state tax reduction.

We think those features of Quist's record do him credit. They are evidence that his mind is not automatically closed to all arguments for higher taxes, and that he appreciates government's rightful role in securing public health and providing for public mobility. That record ought to strengthen Quist's credibility among general-election voters as he questions Walz's views on the federal budget.

As a legislator in the 1980s, Quist focused excessively on social issues. Today he assures that while his positions have not changed, his emphasis has. If he wins on Aug. 14, he promises a robust debate with Walz over how best to reduce the nation's fast-growing debt. First District Republicans should give him the green light to proceed.

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The state's most-watched primary contest this year is in the historically DFL-dominated Eighth District, where voters will decide which of three candidates will make the party's bid to reclaim the congressional seat from first-term GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack.

Many primary voters will attempt to judge which of the three is most likely to topple Cravaack -- former U.S. Rep. and party endorsee Rick Nolan, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark, or former Duluth City Council member Jeff Anderson.

We hope they also consider which candidate has the best potential to provide the region and the nation with top-notch congressional service. It's on that basis that Clark gets our nod.

Unlike Nolan, 68, who last sat in Congress in 1980 representing a different corner of the state, and Anderson, 35, whose elective record consists of one term on the Duluth City Council, Clark at age 51 is in the prime of her political life. She practices a brand of politics akin to that of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar -- moderate, pragmatic, Minnesota-minded, people-focused.

A nonprofit attorney by profession, Clark was a standout as a state senator for five sessions, representing a St. Cloud district that had long been in Republican hands. She was elected deputy majority leader by her peers after just one year in office. She exhibited quick grasp of the complexities of the state budget, wide-ranging policy interests, and the pragmatism and interpersonal skills necessary to turn ideas into legislative action.

Much has been made -- too much, we'd say -- of Clark's decision to move to the Eighth District after failing in 2010 to unseat Sixth District Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann. Talent ought to matter more than residency when judging capacity for leadership.

Some DFL partisans fault Clark for running a poorly focused, insufficiently strategic campaign against Bachmann. That, too, we find overstated. Bachmann was riding high in 2010 as a founder and leader of the congressional Tea Party caucus and a potential presidential candidate. That Tea has cooled since then. Clark deserves a chance to demonstrate that she has gleaned the constructive criticism from the carping about her 2010 campaign, and can turn it to her advantage in 2012.

Each of Clark's two opponents would also be a worthy opponent for Cravaack. Anderson is a promising newcomer to politics outside Duluth. But he would face a steeper learning curve in Congress than would Clark, in part because he's too given to judging national policy questions for their impact on the Eighth District.

Nolan, who gave the old southwestern Minnesota Sixth District excellent representation in the 1970s, served when Democrats had unshakable control of the U.S. House and Washington politics was a much tamer game.

Of the three, Clark alone has shown that she can operate effectively in today's rough-and-tumble partisan lawmaking environment. That ought to count for much with primary voters.

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