ALBERT LEA, MINN. - In a swift and decisive vote Saturday afternoon, Mayo Clinic physician Brian Davis beat out state Rep. Randy Demmer to win the Republican Party endorsement for the U.S. House of Representatives in Minnesota's First District.

Davis, of Rochester, hopes to challenge incumbent Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat from Mankato who's built a formidable reelection campaign. But that race will have to wait until after the primary, in which state Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, will fight Davis for the GOP nomination.

Saturday's convention in Albert Lea was expected to be a close and drawn-out day of balloting, but Davis, a political outsider lacking his foe's name recognition in the southern Minnesota district, captured 160 votes on the first ballot. He needed 157. Demmer received 100 votes.

"I am humbled and honored," Davis said.

Davis will start an aggressive door-knocking campaign Monday on Walz's home turf, where the former National Guard member and high school teacher is wildly popular. Just hours after Davis celebrated his victory, Walz's campaign announced that their efforts had started Saturday with door-knocking and phone calls in Mankato, Rochester and Winona that reached approximately 5,000 voters.

Prior to the vote, state Republican Chairman Ron Carey urged delegates to unite to defeat Walz, whom he said "masqueraded" as a conservative when he ousted Gil Gutknecht in 2006.

"The only conservative thing about Tim Walz was his haircut," Carey said. "Beating Tim Walz is going to be very, very hard."

In a statement released after the GOP convention, DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez said Walz had brought "small-town Minnesota values to Washington -- honoring our veterans, balancing our budgets and returning prosperity to the middle class."

Enter Dick Day

At the convention, a collegial spirit was pervasive, with several delegates saying they would've been happy with either Republican, and Demmer graciously congratulating Davis in a sometimes emotional concession speech. But the party can't escape the wrench Day has unapologetically thrown into the political machine.

"Dick's giving Tim Walz a free pass," Carey said.

Day, Davis and Demmer don't differ greatly on the issues. All three, for instance, take a hard-line stance against providing social services to illegal immigrants. Davis and Demmer both spoke out against abortion and criticized government spending.

Focus on the family

Davis focused on family in his speech and outlined more specific issues than his competitor, saying he opposes gay marriage and the No Child Left Behind Act. He advocated for stem-cell research that doesn't involve human embryos and brought dozens of attendees to their feet at the end of his speech.

Demmer took a more aggressive approach, banking on the promise of change and his background as a farmer and businessman from Hayfield.

Some said Demmer was at a disadvantage because he was at the State House while Davis was trekking around the district, logging 30,000 miles in 10 months. Others said they didn't want Demmer out of the Legislature.

"[Davis] stood for everything I stand for, and also, I wanted to see Randy Demmer up in St. Paul," said La Crescent resident David Bissen, who voted for Davis.

Demmer said he'll decide in the next few days whether he'll seek reelection to the Legislature.

Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391