The DFL party says about 26,000 Democrats attended their precinct caucuses, and the straw poll is the first official indication of who they're backing in the governor's race.
The frontrunner in the poll, Mike Hatch, made the rounds at several suburban caucuses Tuesday night, wrapping up at a school in Burnsville, where he lives.
"Well, who is here for the first time to a precinct caucus?" Hatch asked.
About one-third of the people gathered in this classroom raised their hands.
"Great. I want you to know I went to a precinct caucus in 1974, which is showing my age, and I went to it right in this area," he said.
Hatch urged the group to stay involved in the process, and he made his campaign pitch on the issues of education and health care.
Afterwards, Hatch said he was glad to see a lot of new people at the caucuses, and pleased with his showing in the straw poll. But Hatch said he doesn't underestimate the challenges ahead, particularly the financial ones.
"We've been very aggressive in raising money because we have to. We got a millionaire running in a primary, the governor says he's not going to abide by the limits, so you're looking at millions there," said Hatch. "All too often, Democratic candidates spend a lot of time, resources and effort on a convention process. Even if they get endorsed in June, they are so strapped on the resources that they're not able to go on and win a primary or a general election."
The millionaire is real estate developer Kelly Doran, who could spend some of his millions on his campaign. Doran came in last of the four candidates in the straw poll, but said he expected that, as a political newcomer.
"We're still building up our name recognition," Doran said. "We're still building up awareness of our campaign. That's growing every day. I mean, there are some days we have 3,000 or 4,000 hits a day on our Web site. And so it's continuing to build."
Doran plans to run in the September primary, regardless of whether the party endorses him at the DFL state convention in June. Doran said that may have been a factor in his low showing in the straw poll.
Only one of the candidates, Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, says he'll drop out of the race if he fails to get the party endorsement. That's one of the reasons Reade Bailey of Eden Prairie is backing Kelley.
"I like the fact that he's going to abide by the endorsement," Bailey said. "Because as he says, if a candidate can't unite the DFL here, how can you expect to unite the state?"
Bailey also supports Kelley because of his expertise in the area of education. Kelley chairs the Senate education committee. Kelley had about 22 percent of the straw vote, less than a percentage point behind state Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL- Kerrick.
At a precinct caucus in St. Paul, Karen Williams said she's leaning toward supporting Lourey, who has laid out a plan for universal health coverage.
"I really think she's a wonderful person," Williams said, "and she is really strong with health care as well, and has authored several bills in the health care realm, and wants to keep that strong, whereas the Republicans are trying to decrease funding for a lot of health care issues."
Williams is also opposed to the war in Iraq, and Lourey has long been a critic of the war, even before her son Matthew was killed there.
In addition to the governor's race, DFL caucus attendees also voted their preference for U.S. Senate. Most backed Hennepin County attorney Amy Klobuchar, who got nearly 77 percent of the vote, compared to veterinarian Ford Bell's 16 percent.
The state's other political parties also held caucuses Tuesday night, but there was little drama anywhere else. The Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Mark Kennedy -- face no serious opposition, and the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson is running unopposed for the gubernatorial nomination.