DULUTH - In a night of high emotion and tactical maneuvering, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher won a fierce DFL endorsement contest on Saturday, moving a step closer to becoming Minnesota's first female governor.

In a grueling day of battling over delegates, Kelliher triumphed over rival Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak after vanquishing a slew of other candidates.

Kelliher moves now to what promises to be an even fiercer primary battle against three other DFLers, as the party attempts to win back the governor's office for the first time in 20 years.

Taking the stage, an ebullient Kelliher roared this question to the crowd: "DFLers, are you ready to make history? We must and can do better for Minnesotans. ... I'm ready to go to work."

Earlier, a hush had fallen over the convention when Rybak asked to address delegates shortly after 11 p.m., just before sixth ballot results were to be announced.

"It is time for the greatest party in the history of Minnesota to come together to support Margaret Anderson Kelliher for governor," Rybak said. He also urged Kelliher's three primary rivals, former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, former legislator Matt Entenza and Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner to withdraw, leaving Kelliher a clear primary field.

"We cannot be divided any longer," he said. Minutes later, the convention endorsed Kelliher by acclamation.

Turning point

Momentum appeared to surge for Kelliher when, in a bit of convention drama, Rep. Tom Rukavina ended his candidacy with a fiery endorsement of her

To explosive applause, Rukavina told the crowd, "I was the best progressive in this race, and there's no damn doubt about it. But now I want you to vote for the second best progressive left in this race. I want my floor leaders to vote for Margaret. I want my delegates to vote for Margaret and I'm going to vote for Margaret... Margaret all the way!"

At a critical point in the balloting, many in reNEW Minnesota -- a coalition of progressive groups -- appeared skittish of backing the wrong horse and alienating the winner.

With a sixth ballot underway, reNEW organizer Erik Peterson said the group lacked the votes to unite. Rybak had gotten more than half the group's support, but fell short of the 60 percent bar that had been set for group endorsement.

By late evening, fourth-place Sen. John Marty had thrown his support to Kelliher. Shortly after that, in a voice that occasionally broke with emotion, Rep. Paul Thissen also withdrew, although he declined to endorse.

First hurdle

Endorsement is only the first obstacle in Kelliher's path. After this weekend, she will take on the well-financed Dayton and Entenza, along with Gaertner in the Aug. 10 primary.

After that will come a general election with both a Republican endorsee and an Independence Party candidate. Republicans meet on Friday to give their nod to either Rep. Tom Emmer or Rep. Marty Seifert.

The November fight loomed large for DFL delegates on Saturday.

"We won't win the campaign today, but we can lose it today," DFL Chair Brian Melendez told delegates before balloting began. He pleaded with the campaigns and their supporters to stay polite, even as emotions rose.

"Don't blow it today by being a jerk to anybody," Melendez admonished the nearly 1,400 delegates packed into the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.

Despite the fierce, long fight among multiple candidates -- including perennial candidate Ole Savior -- all remained relatively civil. Each candidate knew he or she would need the others' supporters to put them over the top as the field dwindled.

So supporters applauded politely for rivals, voted to allow their names to be placed in nomination and even bopped to each other's campaign songs. But they also fought hard for their own candidates, sending rivals and power players to pick off as many votes as possible.

Ellison switched to Rybak

After Entenza dropped out of endorsement contention, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison told the delegates that he'd shifted his support from Entenza to Rybak, saying he has "the guts it takes to lead on tough issues."

Kelliher, meanwhile, distributed a flier reminding delegates that she had backing from both former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Secretary of State Joan Growe. A candidate in the 1984 convention that went for 19 ballots, Growe also appeared on the convention floor to talk up Kelliher.

In an earlier speech to the delegates on Saturday, Kelliher said that as a farm girl now living in Minneapolis, she would unite the state and end what she called outgoing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's "right-wing ideology."

Rybak told delegates "we are the can-do Democrats, running against the party of 'Just say no.'"

When asked for "four more years of do-nothing Republican leadership," Rybak said, "Minnesotans should just say NO." He pledged to fight for the middle class, better schools, affordable health care, jobs, equal rights for gay people and to repair the state's fiscal problems.

Before he endorsed Kelliher, Rukavina also offered one of the most rousing speeches of the night, with sharp jabs at his rivals. The passionate, 5-foot-3 lawmaker dismissed Rybak as a "big city mayor" and Kelliher as an "insider."

Later, Rukavina said, "Even if I don't win, I'm the only person in this room who made everyone stand up and cheer."

Dayton and Entenza both had their names briefly in contention before withdrawing. Entenza had his name placed in nomination and was allowed to make a speech before quickly pulling out. Dayton, who intended to skip endorsement, also had his name withdrawn.

That move cost Dayton some embarrassment when he was refused entry to the convention floor by party officials. He called the move "petty."

But Andy O'Leary, DFL executive director, said Dayton's decision to go to a primary sealed his fate. "He has chosen his own path," O'Leary said. "His path did not include floor passes."

The close race and occasional skirmishes didn't dampen the enthusiasm of some.

"However the day ends, it will be good for the party," said James Elwell, a Burnsville delegate and Kelliher supporter.

Staff writers Mike Kaszuba and Pat Doyle contributed to this report. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164 Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288