Two Republicans and two DFLers emerged at the front of a crowded pack Tuesday in the Minnesota governor's race.
Republicans delivered the most definitive message, giving state Rep. Marty Seifert a clear victory in the non-binding straw poll held during the caucuses held in more than 4,000 precincts. Placing second was state Rep. Tom Emmer.
On the DFL side, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak had a slight edge over House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, with the party's nine other candidates languishing in the single digits of support from caucusgoers. Underscoring the volatility of the race: "Uncommitted" ranked third in the voting.
Seifert, the former House Minority Leader from Marshall, had his victory certified early Wednesday by GOP Chairman Tony Sutton, who congratulated him for finishing first with just over 50 percent of the vote. With more than 95 percent of precincts reporting results, Emmer had received nearly 40 percent of the vote.
Declining to directly endorse either Republican, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Wednesday that Seifert "came off with a good start" and that his first-place finish "gives credence to the idea that ... he's the front-runner."
None of the other five Republican candidates was able to muster more than 5 percent of the caucusgoers' votes.
DFL activists' preferences were less clear cut. With nearly 80 percent of precincts reporting, Rybak was supported by 21.8 percent, while Kelliher had gotten just over 20 percent of the vote. Nearly 15 percent of the caucusgoers cast uncommitted ballots.
One name was missing from the night's DFL ballot: that of former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, who will run in the primary and declined to be on the ballot.
The Independence Party held only eight caucuses statewide, as it stages a month-long online caucus. With only 262 party activists voting, former Republican commentator Tom Horner had gotten nearly half of the votes.
The polls are not binding, but confer bragging rights and momentum to winners that could help them break away from the most crowded gubernatorial field in modern state history.
And the polls represent only a tiny slice of the electorate: With most precincts reporting, slightly more than 40,000 people attended the caucuses, according to the Secretary of State's office.
While the caucuses lacked the pizazz and bursting-at-the-seams crowds of the 2008 caucuses, they still generated buzz.
"There's a lot at stake," said Eagan state Senate District 38 chairman Justin Countryman, as eager Republicans streamed into Metcalf Junior High School for the night's event.
Straw poll aside, Minnesota's political get-together allowed neighbors to debate the issues closest to their hearts.
At Blaine High School, Republicans argued everything from smoking laws -- they weren't keen on them -- to nuclear power restrictions -- they didn't like them -- all as a long-haired John Lennon looked on from a picture at the head of the class.
DFLers at Sanford Middle School in southeast Minneapolis passed resolutions against puppy mills, and for sex education that included gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. They called for a restoration of funds to General Assistance Medical Care, which pays for health care for the poor, and resolved that the state should divest all Israel bonds.
Sometimes, neighbors got a bit too close to their neighbors.
At Sanford Middle School, a volunteer was cheerily handing out Rybak campaign literature when Kelliher walked in.
The volunteer was about to hand her a Rybak brochure -- then pulled it away and offered an uncomfortable smile when she realized who Kelliher was.
Kelliher shook hands with more than a dozen people in the room and shared the story about her 85-year-old mother going to her first caucus on Tuesday in Lake Crystal to vote for her daughter.
The highlight of Tuesday's caucuses was the straw poll conducted by both parties, giving an initial glimpse at who is drawing early support.
Even for those who win, the boost provided by a straw poll can be fleeting.
"The folks who win the straw poll more often than not are not the endorsed candidates," Sutton said. He said Republicans joke about the "Curse of the Straw Poll," and quickly rattled off six recent straw poll losers who went on to nail their party's endorsement.
In his first run, now-Gov. Tim Pawlenty trailed 2002 candidate Brian Sullivan in a caucus straw poll but went on to win party backing and two terms in the governor's office.
Still, the caucus poll may be "the beginning of the end" for some candidates, said DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez.
"This is their first real test whether the voters are responding to their campaigns," Melendez said.
State Sen. David Hann and four other Republicans didn't get much of a response, according to early straw poll results. Hann got the nod from about five percent of caucusgoers. The other GOP candidates were nearly bested by write-ins.
Several DFLers trailed throughout the night, including Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, who has spent two years on her gubernatorial bid, and former state Rep. Steve Kelley, who failed in a previous gubernatorial campaign.
In the coming weeks, candidates will get a sense of how many supporters they have among the delegates to state conventions, and those numbers may differ from the ones in the straw poll. Decisions made Tuesday will also affect races lower on the ticket.
Although they won't have straw polls to judge, candidates in contested races for the constitutional offices, the Legislature and Congress will start to see the results of their delegate-wooing after Tuesday.
In the end, the gatherings across the state were all about just one thing for Carol Becker.
A caucus organizer, Becker leaned against the Sanford auditorium stage after the last attendees left. "And that's democracy, with a very small 'd,'" she said.
Becker then threw away all the leftover campaign literature, put on her coat and went home.
Staff writers Mike Kaszuba, Baird Helgeson, Pat Doyle and Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.