WASHINGTON - Like a lot of committed liberals who came of age in the tumultuous 1960s, Rick Nolan emerged somewhat less starry-eyed from the tangled epilogue of the 1970s.

Divorced and disenchanted after three terms in Congress, Nolan, then a 37-year-old rising star in the Democratic caucus, abruptly quit electoral politics in 1980. Weeks after Ronald Reagan won the presidency, Nolan told an interviewer, "Congress is relatively impotent to make the changes the country needs."

Now 68, Nolan is the pick of Minnesota's DFL Party activists to unseat freshman Republican Chip Cravaack, a 52-year-old former Navy pilot who grew up in the more conservative milieu of the Reagan era. Cravaack was a teenager in 1974 when Nolan, an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, came to Congress as part of a Democratic wave of "Watergate babies" -- the direct inverse of the Tea Party Republican wave that brought Cravaack into office in 2010.

Running for what would be a fourth term after a 32-year hiatus, Nolan is still passionate about the progressive values of his youth, and has fired up a new generation of DFL delegates who hope to help the endorsee beat out two primary election challengers: Former state Sen. Tarryl Clark and ex-Duluth City Council President Jeff Anderson.

For some party activists, Nolan rekindles the idealism of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. But along with that come some politically sensitive reminders of a bygone era in American life -- such as the time Nolan presented a flower on "The Merv Griffin Show" to Transcendental Meditation founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian guru made famous by the Beatles.

"Republicans have always tried to make that a big issue," said Nolan, who still meditates daily. "It always fell flat."

Some Republicans also snicker about how Nolan returned from a trade mission to Cuba in 1977 praising "the progress of Cuban agriculture and Cuban rural life" under Fidel Castro, with whom he had arranged a prisoner release.

Nolan says he was merely making a "statement of fact" about higher literacy and life-expectancy on the Communist island nation at the time, which he saw as a potential market for the Minnesota farmers that formed a prime constituency in his west-central congressional district.

Based on his polish and experience, many Republicans still privately rate Nolan as the most formidable of the three DFL contenders in the Aug. 14 primary. They also are mining his past as fodder in a nationally watched election playing out in a DFL-leaning but socially conservative district in rural northern Minnesota.

'Positive energy'

Much as in the '70s, the modern GOP portrays Nolan as "ultra-liberal," criticizing him last week for raising money with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a gun control advocate and co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). State GOP Party Chairman Pat Shortridge used the fundraiser to question Nolan's claim to being a "Second Amendment guy" who likes to hunt and fish.

To be sure, some of the counter-culture affectations of the "Me Decade" have faded or gone mainstream. Yoga and meditation are now as typically suburban as the SUV. But the coming campaign is likely to force Nolan to explain his apparent disillusionment with Congress in 1980 and his newfound desire to go back.

Nolan's answer? "What I want to do is make a difference. And I feel better prepared and more obligated to do what I can to make a difference than ever before."

In the intervening decades, Nolan has remarried, had children, tested his fortunes in the export business, grown trees, dabbled in farming and real estate, done volunteer work, and served as Minnesota DFL Party co-chair.

But his most high-profile role was leading the late Gov. Rudy Perpich's World Trade Center Corp., a state-supported organization to aid Minnesota firms doing business internationally. It was housed in a St. Paul office tower built in 1987 for that express purpose.

Nolan, whose $78,000 salary made him one of the state's highest-paid public officials at the time, soon became a lightning rod for controversy. GOP legislators questioned the effectiveness of the enterprise and accused its leaders of mismanagement. The organization finally was taken private in 1993 after using up $5.5 million in state subsidies.

Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, then still a gubernatorial candidate, howled in protest in 1989 when Nolan got a raise. "It is simply wrong," Carlson said. "He hasn't demonstrated any ability except to survive politically."

But as governor, Carlson acknowledged that he made good use of the World Trade Center. "It was just an ill-fated start," said Carlson, who now speaks well of Nolan. "Eventually it worked out."

Despite the turbulence, Nolan believes the project proved its worth. "It brought international trade to the forefront," he said. "It was not easy pulling that thing together and keeping it moving forward."

One of Nolan's biggest backers remains George Latimer, who was the DFL mayor of St. Paul, one of the partners in the World Trade Center project. "The guy had this positive energy that comes out of him, and it's still there," Latimer said.

'It's what he believed'

That energy, which translates into an engaging style of retail politicking, is seen by Nolan backers as the ace-in-the-hole that will compensate for Clark's superior fundraising prowess. They predict it will help him on the Iron Range, where Anderson, an Ely native, enjoys the support of big name political figures like Tony Sertich, who heads the powerful Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and former state Rep. Tom Rukavina, a godfather of Range politics.

Twin Cities marketing executive Todd Waters, who spent part of the 1970s on the road hopping freight trains, worked for Nolan in Congress and doesn't expect his old boss to shy away from the liberal views of his past. Waters remembers Nolan braving harsh constituent criticism as a state representative speaking out against the Vietnam War at rallies. "He got into a lot of trouble," Waters said. "But it's what he believed."

Nolan says he's proud of the pressure he helped bring to end the war. But he also spearheaded efforts in Congress to address world hunger and help small farmers and small towns that were being abandoned by the railroads.

The large Democratic freshman class of '74 included Jim Oberstar, who served 18 terms before his upset loss to Cravaack in 2010. "We came there as a reform class," said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who stayed on. "It was after Watergate, it was toward the end of the Vietnam War. We certainly wanted to pursue that agenda, and [Nolan] was one of our leaders."

By 1979, disillusioned by the Carter presidency, Nolan also became one of the leaders of a movement to draft Sen. Ted Kennedy to challenge Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. The effort was not necessarily well-received within the Minnesota DFL, whose native son, Walter Mondale, served as Carter's vice president. But fences were mended by 1984, and Nolan, a former Mondale aide, backed the Minnesotan's ill-fated presidential bid against Reagan.

Gray, beardless, and more worldly, Nolan now feels he has a new role to play in Congress. "That's where you have to go," he said, "if you want to make a difference."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.