Allen Quist's conservative zeal has long been his political strength -- and his weakness.

It attracted the Republican activists he needed to deny party endorsement to an incumbent governor in 1994, but prevented him from getting the broader support he needed to win the election.

Now Quist is back with fervor, announcing that he's taking aim at Democrat Tim Walz in the First Congressional District. Borrowing a page from past campaigns, Quist is painting his latest opponent as too liberal for his constituents.

But it remains to be seen whether residents of the southern Minnesota district -- including Republicans -- will find Quist mainstream enough for their taste.

His targets include the House health care bill and the $787 billion stimulus package, but also Darwin and global warming. He once proclaimed that "a genetic predisposition" led men to be heads of households.

Neither Walz's congressional office nor his campaign responded Thursday to Quist's portrayal of him. But the state DFL Party issued a statement that said Quist offered "right-wing rhetoric while refusing to offer solutions." It noted that he has been a political associate of Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of the Sixth District, and would "rival her for ineffectiveness."

Quist countered that he represented a swing district when he was in the state Legislature in the 1980s, and could appeal to enough people in the First District to win. He said Walz's votes favoring the health care bill and stimulus demonstrate that he is "out of step with the voters" in the district.

"If people think Congress is headed in the right direction, they really ought to vote for Tim Walz, because he's a cog in that wheel," Quist said. "But if they think Congress is going in the wrong direction ... I'm going to be asking for their votes."

Conservative muscle-flexing

How far Quist goes will depend heavily on the clout of conservative activists, who are flexing their muscle in Minnesota.

First District GOP chairman Steve Perkins said that Quist "brings some strength and enthusiasm into the race and is a candidate that I'm sure our delegates and alternates, as they look to endorsement, will consider seriously."

A St. Peter farmer, Quist, 65, has a long record as an outspoken social conservative and GOP insurgent. In 1994, he took on Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, who became a target at his party's convention because he supported abortion rights and signed legislation affording legal protections to gays and lesbians. Quist won the endorsement on the first ballot.

The two then fought a bitter primary battle, with Quist and his allies attacking "liberal Arne Carlson" on social issues while promoting policies that discouraged divorce, promoted abstinence-based sex education and cut welfare. But in the end, Carlson trounced Quist by a 2-1 margin to win the Republican primary.

Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, said Quist may have a hard time winning the GOP endorsement in the First District.

"Allen Quist could maybe defeat a Jim Ramstad-type Republican," said Hofrenning, referring to the former GOP congressman from the Third District. "Allen Quist could defeat a moderate liberal. But I think there will be other conservative candidates who will be stronger all around than Quist."

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210