WASHINGTON - Former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan was a step closer to reclaiming a seat in Congress late Tuesday, after being named the winner in the three-way DFL primary in northern Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District.

After the Associated Press declared him the winner -- with 70 percent of the precincts reporting -- Nolan now faces first-term Republican Chip Cravaack in what promises to be a nationally watched race.

Nolan held a strong lead throughout the evening. Running behind were former state Rep. Tarryl Clark and former Duluth City Council Member Jeff Anderson.

The late-summer primary was marked by low voter turnout, despite being the first DFL primary in the district since 1974, when former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar won the seat.

For the 68-year-old Nolan, who had the backing of state's DFL party, the primary was his first taste of electoral politics since he left Congress in 1981 after three terms representing south-central Minnesota.

For Clark, the race was her second consecutive high-profile bid for Congress, having lost to Sixth District Republican Michele Bachmann in one of the most expensive U.S. House races of 2010.

For Anderson, a first-time congressional candidate, the primary was a test of his local organizing strength in his native Iron Range and Duluth, where he pulled his strongest support throughout the night.

The primary election for the Eighth Congressional District capped a grueling three-way contest that party leaders had sought to avoid as they try to win back a congressional seat that has been in DFL hands for decades. Among the DFL leaders calling for unity behind Nolan in the wildly unpredictable primary was Oberstar, whom Cravaack unseated in 2010 in a stunning upset.

Clark's move to Duluth from outside the district was viewed by many party activists as potentially undermining one their biggest slams against Cravaack: His family's decision to move to New Hampshire, a response to his wife's career as a pharmaceutical executive in Boston.

Along the way, the DFL primary divided the party's biggest names.

Former President Bill Clinton endorsed Clark, as he did in her run against Bachmann in 2010. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, along with much of the Minnesota DFL establishment, backed Nolan. Anderson, the native son, ran with the support of a passel of Iron Range politicians.

Cravaack, a political novice until two years ago, is considered one of the Democrats' best hopes of reclaiming a seat lost in the Tea Party wave of 2010, which gave Republicans control of the U.S. House.

A medically retired airline pilot and a stay-at-home-dad, Cravaack is a freshman Republican in a historically DFL district. But the incumbent enters the fall election with nearly $1 million in the bank, almost a 10-to-1 advantage over Clark, who was his closest fundraising rival.

Nolan, the weakest fund-raiser of the three, reported $87,898 in cash on hand in his latest campaign finance reports.

Altogether, Clark raised and spent more than $1.1 million in the primary contest, about four times more than Nolan.

Anderson, despite deep roots in the Iron Range, had trouble raising money and had to work hard to gain significant traction outside Duluth and the northeastern precincts of the district.

Both sides in the fall election are expected to benefit from significant spending by the national parties and outside interest groups, a sign of the district's competitiveness.

Testy exchanges

It remains to be seen how well the DFL primary victor has fared through a difficult intraparty campaign. Party hopes for a non-confrontational race dissolved into a spat between the front-runners over abortion.

A women's rights group affiliated with EMILY's List attacked Nolan two weeks ago for his voting record opposing abortion when he was a congressman in the 1970s. Nolan, a Catholic, has acknowledged once having opposed abortion rights, as did Oberstar throughout his career. But Nolan said he eventually came to consider the issue to be a matter of personal morality.

Clark attacked Nolan over his involvement in the World Trade Center Corp. in St. Paul, a state-subsidized initiative of the late DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich that dissolved in controversy.

Nolan called Clark's negative ads "last-minute, eleventh-hour gutter politics."

While the DFLers punched away at each other, Cravaack -- who had no primary challenger -- saved his money and cultivated relationships with organized labor, a force in Duluth and the Iron Range.

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