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Minn.'s attention span tested in primary campaigns

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Polling places were fairly quiet as Minnesota voters got off to a slow start in a rare August primary Tuesday, but two competitive races among congressional challengers were generating interest in the northeastern and southern parts of the state.

Some of the 40 legislative primaries on the ballot also could spur turnout in some areas, including three western suburban Twin Cities districts where Republican incumbents face conservative challengers.

It's only the second time Minnesota has held its primary election in August since moving it up from September to give military and overseas voters more time to vote in the general election.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has predicted less than 15 percent of eligible voters will participate, with heightened interest in the northeastern 8th District and the southern 1st District. He said everything was going smoothly a couple hours after polls opened, but he didn't expect to have a better handle on turnout until the end of the day.

"Everything seems to be in order and all systems are go," Ritchie said.

Ritchie said his office mainly heard Tuesday morning from people seeking help using the state's online polling place finder. This year's redistricting sent many voters to new districts or changed their polling places. Other people were directed to an online absentee ballot tracking tool.

In northeastern Minnesota, Democratic voters are choosing an opponent for Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack, a conservative newcomer who upset longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar two years ago in what had been considered safe blue territory.

Former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark and former Rep. Rick Nolan are competing for the chance to challenge Cravaack in a race that turned negative last week.

Around midday, Duluth City Clerk Jeff Cox said voter traffic was less than two years ago, where there was a hotly contested gubernatorial primary.

"Probably one step above light is the turnout at the moment," Cox said.

In the south, Republican voters were choosing between state Sen. Mike Parry and former state Rep. Allen Quist in a fight that has gotten personal. The winner will run against Democratic Rep. Tim Walz in a district that usually is competitive.

But polling places across Blue Earth County were "awfully peaceful," joked Elections Director Patty O'Connor.

She said the best turnout she had heard of by around 10 a.m. was a Mankato precinct with traditionally high voter participation — about 30 people out of 3,000 eligible voters had voted. She said absentee voting was down, too.

In Olmsted County, which includes Rochester, Elections Director Pam Fuller said it was pretty slow there, too.

"You never know, it might pick up," Fuller said, optimistically. "It's a nice day"

This year, Walz is seen as relatively safe after the Republicans tore into each other over over-the-top comments by each. Most recently, Parry drew condemnation after accusing Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, of popping pills in a meeting.

Ritchie said election officials also are preparing for possible recounts in two statewide judicial races, where the top two vote-getters will advance to the November election. The state pays for recounts if the candidates are separated by less than one-half of one percentage point.

Clark and Nolan turned up the negativity recently, with Clark running a TV ad last week that accused Nolan of "blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars" as head of the Minnesota World Trade Center more than two decades ago.

Nolan struck back, calling the ad "gutter politics." The Minnesota DFL came to his defense with a radio ad calling Clark "just another politician who will say or do anything to get elected," a reference to her recent move into the district after losing to Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann two years ago.

"It's too bad she decided that she needed to go negative," said Nolan campaign manager Mike Misterek. "That's just not the way we do politics up here."

The exchange highlighted weak spots — Nolan's age, 68, has been a potential negative because it ties him to an earlier era. Clark has been called a district-shopper after moving into a leased condo in Duluth last year.

Anderson, a former Duluth City Councilor from the Iron Range, was seen as less experienced. But campaign spokesman Nate Dybvig said the others' attacks weren't hurting.

"The negative advertising is really helping us a lot," Dybvig said Monday. "People aren't looking for that sort of stuff."

In southern Minnesota, Parry, a state senator from Waseca, has been on the defensive since claiming he saw Dayton take 15 to 16 pills at a meeting. The remark came after Parry made an issue of decades-old comments Quist had made about social issues to raise questions about Quist's electability.

Quist campaign manager Julie Quist, the candidate's wife, said the former state representative from St. Peter stayed focused on eliminating the deficit as his key campaign issue.

Elsewhere Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar had no major competition and was expected to advance easily. Republican Kurt Bills, his party's preferred candidate, had two challengers in his primary. The Independence Party also had a contested party between Stephen Williams and Glen Menze.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.