Who's more likely to perform the politically Herculean feat of ousting GOP cable TV darling Michele Bachmann from her Sixth District congressional seat -- DFL insider Tarryl Clark or outsider Maureen Reed?

That was the question under earnest discussion by a pair of party veterans March 13 at the Senate District 52 convention, held at Mahtomedi High School. I leaned in to listen.

"I'm for Tarryl Clark because she's electable," said Mary Vogel of Marine on St. Croix. "We need someone who knows how to run a winning campaign, because she's done it. She's an experienced legislator, and a leader. She's a very good communicator."

Yvette Oldendorf of Lake Elmo countered, "I'm for Maureen Reed because she's electable. She's a better fit for the district. She's a doctor; she has on-the-ground experience in business and education. Michele Bachmann doesn't know how to deal with someone who knows what she's talking about, like Maureen does."

In a nutshell, that's the choice confronting delegates at next Saturday's DFL endorsing convention in Blaine. Two top-tier contenders are offering two strikingly different theories about what's required to win in the north suburban/St. Cloud district.

Their contest bears watching, and not just because they're taking aim at a Republican who has gained a national following with rhetoric that regularly ranges from the right wing to the ridiculous.

The Clark/Reed contest is illustrative of a national Democratic Party that's struggling to respond to an electorate that's increasingly mistrustful of government and politics as usual. The Sixth District may possess more of that attitude than any other in Minnesota. Traditionally blue-collar and more than a tinge libertarian, it was Jesse Ventura country 12 years ago. The economic storm of the last two years hit the district hard.

In that unsettled environment, there's something appealing about a candidate who exudes competence and confidence in her ability to win. The dilemma for Sixth District DFLers is that they have two of them.

Clark, 48, of St. Cloud, is the Minnesota Senate assistant majority leader, former DFL state associate chair and an attorney with an extensive background in nonprofit work. She rose quickly to prominence in the Senate, carrying heavy-duty bills on insurance reform, early education, health care and energy policy.

She argues that a DFL upset will require mobilizing a true grass-roots campaign. The DFL may not be the district's party. But it has a real on-the-ground network, ready to be activated. Clark says she alone can do it.

Reed, 56, of Grant, is a physician, former vice president and medical director of HealthPartners, former president of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents and the 2006 Independence Party candidate for lieutenant governor.

She says Clark's strategy won't cut it in a district whose six counties went 52 percent for John McCain in 2008. Reed says the DFL can win only with a real-world centrist, not a career politician. She fills that bill.

Next Saturday's delegates are expected to prefer Clark's argument. But they likely won't get the last word. If Clark wins the endorsement, Reed plans to put her name on the Aug. 10 primary ballot.

The mention of a possible primary fight made some of the DFLers I met at the District 52 convention scowl. Primaries waste time, energy and, most significantly, money, they said. Better to settle early on a candidate who can go full-bore against Bachmann.

But there's another way to think about that prospect -- especially in a year with an earlier primary than Minnesota has seen in several generations. Money spent on a congressional primary isn't wasted. It builds interest in the race and buys visibility for the winner. Going up against one of the country's best-known members of Congress, the DFL challenger is going to need as much of those things as she can get.

What's more, the spectacle of two such impressive women interrupting careers of accomplishment to try to unseat a two-term member of Congress might have value that lingers into the fall campaign.

Most members of Congress are sitting pretty in their home districts by the time they seek their third terms. They're generally so well-known and well-funded that the opposite party's stars stay away.

As in other ways, Bachmann sits outside the normal political bell curve on this score. She has superlative name recognition and unquestioned capacity to raise money. But the competition isn't cowed. If anything, it's energized. That's something nonprimary voters are bound to notice. No matter who lands on the Nov. 2 ballot, Bachmann is likely to be facing her most formidable opponent yet.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.