A seismic shift in Minnesota's political landscape unfolded Wednesday as the most game-changing election in a generation sent Republicans and the DFL scrambling for the last undecided prize -- the governor's office.

DFLer Mark Dayton unofficially leads Republican Tom Emmer by 8,856 votes -- a margin so slight that it could trigger a hand-ballot recount for the second election cycle in a row.

Officials began the tedious, nerve-wracking task of locking up ballots, which both parties may guard around the clock.

The day's events placed the state, yet again, in political suspended animation, awaiting the prospect of another recount brawl that could take months to resolve and get tangled in the courts.

Also left in doubt was who will confront the state's budget problems when the Legislature convenes in January.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty may get an extended stay: He said on Wednesday that he intends to serve until a new governor is sworn in, which could take him well past his scheduled departure of Jan. 3.

Republicans, emboldened by decisive wins in the state House and Senate, said they will fight for every last vote in the governor's race.

"They're trying to stop the train; we're the train," state Republican Party lawyer Tony Trimble said at a morning news conference only hours after both parties' "victory" celebrations petered out.

State GOP chairman Tony Sutton jumped in: "We are not going to get rolled this time."

Dayton expressed cool confidence about the complex process that will decide his political fate. "It's about something far more priceless. It's about the integrity of an election in a democracy," Dayton told a packed Capitol news conference.

Dayton and Emmer kept low profiles Wednesday after the roller-coaster ride of an election night drama that started with jubilation in the Dayton camp as he jumped out to an early lead before Emmer clawed his way back into contention.

The two men took few risks as the contest ground down in a race that featured no momentum-snuffing revelations or significant changes in poll numbers. Dayton, a former U.S. senator, has pledged to resolve a good chunk of the state's financial ills by taxing high earners, while Emmer has espoused a stripped-down government and no tax increases.

While Republicans seethed over the need for another recount, Dayton appeared to be deliberately setting up a dichotomy between the warring Republican rhetoric and his voice of moderation. Holding a thin but still comfortable lead, Dayton declined to declare victory on Wednesday.

"This is about upholding the integrity of the election," he said.

Rather than work partisans into a frenzy for a protracted fight, Dayton somberly praised hard-working election officials and noted historical trends that suggest a rival has never overcome the kind of lead he holds. Dayton's advantage Wednesday afternoon was nearly 30 times larger than the margin that sent Democrat Al Franken to the U.S. Senate.

Power with the people

"The power here rests not with politicians but with the people," Dayton said. The lead he and running mate Yvonne Prettner Solon hold, he said, is "certainly beyond the margin of what has historically been any change in the vote totals in the recount process in Minnesota."

Emmer, a state legislator and trial lawyer from Delano, stuck close to his home and did not meet with journalists.

"With nearly 100 percent of precincts reporting, this race is still too close to call," Emmer said in a statement. "The margin that currently separates Senator Dayton and me is currently within the automatic recount trigger. There is a process in law that will ensure that we arrive at a conclusive result, ensuring that all valid votes are counted and the will of the voters is met."

'It's idle speculation'

The Independence Party's Tom Horner, who placed a distant third, said he does not view himself as a spoiler. While Dayton and Emmer staked out opposite outposts in the political spectrum, Horner said the results show there's a demand for moderate centrists.

"There were several hundred thousand voters who thought the other candidates were too far to the left and too far to the right," Horner said on Wednesday. "It's idle speculation that they would have gone for this candidate or the other."

If Emmer wins, he could have greater success whittling down the size of government with like-minded partners in the Legislature and slicing the budget in a way that Pawlenty, who battled DFLers for nearly a decade, never could.

Republicans would also be the guiding hand in the required retooling of congressional and legislative districts, perhaps giving them an electoral edge for years to come.

'Very aggressive'

With so much at stake, Republicans are gearing up for a tenacious battle over the likely recount.

"We are going to be very, very aggressive with this recount process," Sutton said. "We are going to pursue this until we are absolutely certain that all the votes were counted correctly."

Republicans have hired Michael Toner, a Washington lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Before that, he was chief counsel to the Republican National Committee and general counsel to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign. Of late, he helped Pawlenty start his Freedom First Political Action Committee.

Republicans are pinning their hopes on the idea that many of their candidates thumped their DFL rivals, yet Emmer placed second. Could it be that voters turned out in droves for Republican legislative and congressional candidates and then chose Dayton or Horner? Sutton doesn't buy it.

"I don't know if it was fraud or incompetence," he said of the gubernatorial vote tally. "Something doesn't smell right about this."

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat who cruised to an easy victory on Tuesday, rejected the notion that election hijinks or mistakes cost Emmer the election.

"I expect this recount to reflect the same pride and the same calm behavior that our voters really represented yesterday," Ritchie said.

Saying that he expected a possible 2010 recount to be "fun," Ritchie said he "hated" the high emotions that marked the 2008 U.S. Senate recount and which included some death threats.

He said voters acted "calmly, with courtesy, with respect" on Tuesday and he hoped that attitude prevailed through the recount.

No recount can start until the state Canvassing Board meets on Nov. 23 to examine final vote tallies, Ritchie said.

If the margin is close enough to merit an automatic recount, election officials across the state will begin hand-counting each ballot -- a process that could take weeks.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288