During a recent DFL gathering at a Woodbury pizza parlor, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher got the question every hungry Democrat wants answered: How will you win?

Her quick and passionate reply: I know the Capitol and the state, know how to win partisan fights, and I'm a woman. Women, she told them, make up 58 percent of DFL primary voters.

A win at next weekend's DFL endorsing convention would put Kelliher a step closer to her goal of becoming Minnesota's first female governor, one already tested by many legislative and political battles.

But few top-ranked women politicians in the state have campaigned so overtly in recent years on their gender. Kelliher's bid to motivate women could give her a crucial voting bloc -- or alienate voters she still needs to win over.

To claim a seat Democrats have not held in a generation, Kelliher will have to best a mostly male field that includes several House members, a state senator and the mayor of her city, chief rival R.T. Rybak.

Kelliher is acquiring powerful allies for her campaign: former Vice President Walter Mondale, national and local women's groups, dozens of DFL legislators and others who say her combination of collaboration, leadership, smarts and yes, gender, should make her tough to beat both in August and November.

Many say they are backing Kelliher's candidacy because of what they've seen over the years, as she has risen from community organizer and legislative staffer to the second most powerful position in state government.

Kelliher learned early how to pull the levers of power at the Capitol, starting as an aide to the House Speaker in the early '90s. By 1998, she was a legislator and in 2006 became only the second female speaker in state history.

Since then, she has been pitted daily against one of the most nimble, forceful Republicans in the state, Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- against whom she has scored some big wins and some losses serious enough to raise doubts about whether she has what it takes to be governor.

Kelliher was skillful enough to wring out a rare override when Pawlenty vetoed the gasoline tax in 2008, but she appeared to be caught flat by his unilateral budget-balancing that effectively sidelined her and other DFL leaders last year.

"She's made mistakes," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, an Iron Range DFLer who is among Kelliher's challengers at next weekend's endorsing convention. He contends that the Legislature should never have sent Pawlenty all its spending bills in 2009, which allowed him to unallot, and should have taken him to court once he did.

"I tried to build a coalition to sue the governor, but I couldn't do it on my own," Kelliher said, adding that potential partners "chickened out."

Late last year, the House joined in a lawsuit from a legal aid group against the governor.

Negotiating skills

Some say Kelliher's collaborative style is what sets her apart and has allowed her to keep a large, unwieldy caucus together while making steady gains on things DFLers want.

In a letter last week, Mondale urged Democrats to pick Kelliher because "we need a DFL candidate who is ready to be governor the day after the election ... the results of Margaret's inclusive style of leadership have been remarkable." As examples, the letter ticked off the gas tax override; the Legacy amendment, which increased the sales tax to generate funds for the environment, water and culture; and a $1 billion bonding bill.

Kelliher, he said, "recognizes leadership is not about scoring political points -- it's about improving people's lives."

Others think Kelliher needs polish and may lack the charisma that defines Rybak.

"I think her stump speech skills just suck," said Sue Halligan, a DFL delegate from Woodbury who favors Rybak, but still puts Kelliher as her second choice. "She might have a problem getting elected."

Among those tracking delegates, several believe Kelliher will come into the Duluth convention ahead in the count.

'I'll use my mom skills'

Kelliher says that her childhood on a farm and her life now as a working mother in the state's largest city have given her a foot in two worlds and a deep connection to regular Minnesotans.

To unite the state's disparate elements, she said, "I'll use my mom skills, I'll use my skills as a speaker and executive ... and I'll also use my common-sense Minnesota skills in being able to get this done."

With two school-age children, Kelliher frequently peppers her speeches with references to children's behaviors, comparing recalcitrant Republicans to obstinate toddlers and Pawlenty to a "petulant teenager."

She's also not above taking gentle pokes at her own past. "I think a former dairy princess, a former state 4-H president ... is our best shot at having a contrast," she told supporters.

If she claims the DFL's endorsement, Kelliher would face two men in the August primary: former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza. Kelliher would also be running against Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, whose campaign so far doesn't appear to be catching fire.

Kelliher emphasized her gender in a recent interview. "Our party could choose to put up the same looking candidates that they have for 152 years as the governor of the state, or we might do something different," she said.

Shirley Nelson, executive director of Minnesota's Women Candidate Development Coalition in St. Paul, said a gendered appeal could put a candidate on a tightrope.

"I would never recommend that a woman run as a 'woman candidate,'" Nelson said. "I mean, it's apparent that she is a woman." The coalition doesn't endorse candidates, but Nelson said she personally has contributed to both Kelliher and Gaertner's campaigns.

Former gubernatorial candidate Judi Dutcher says it's "smart politics" for Kelliher to mention the advantages a female candidate would bring.

"The electorate in this state has shown time and again if they have a qualified woman candidate, they will chose that candidate," Dutcher said.

But the DFL bypassed Dutcher for gubernatorial endorsement in 2002 and skipped former state Sen. Becky Lourey in 2002 and 2006. Both Dutcher and Lourey support Kelliher's bid.

Denny Schneider, a DFL delegate, agrees Kelliher's gender can be an advantage. "If everything else is good, then that's an extra plus," he said.

Schneider said he had been leaning toward Rybak, but was less sure after hearing Kelliher at the Woodbury event.

Kelliher, ever the strategist, was happy about the possible convert.

"Did Denny tell you how I made his life worse tonight?" she said with a laugh.

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