Four candidates are heading into a potentially decisive political battle at a St. Paul middle school Saturday when the city's dominant DFL Party is gathering to endorse its pick for mayor.
But after months — even years — of campaigning, only one candidate has even half of the pledged support needed to win the DFL stamp of approval, which has been key to winning the city's highest office in the past.
The leading contender is Melvin Carter, a 38-year-old former city council member who works as executive director of Gov. Mark Dayton's children's cabinet, a health and education initiative. He's vying to be the city's first black mayor and hails from a four-generation St. Paul family.
Carter has just over 31 percent of the 500 delegates to the convention. An endorsement takes 60 percent.
That has other challengers looking to at least block a party nod, leaving them all to campaign through November for the first ever ranked-choice vote for an empty St. Paul mayoral seat.
The mayor's office is open because incumbent Chris Coleman isn't seeking a fourth term and is running for governor.
City Council member Dai Thao, a 41-year-old IT consultant, is among the contenders to fill the seat. He's the son of Hmong immigrants and came to the U.S. as a small child.
Thao has the second-most pledged delegates, with about 21 percent. But his campaign has been clouded by allegations that his campaign manager tried to shake down a lobbyist for a bribe earlier this year. The state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is investigating.
Thao said it's a political attack, and he thinks DFL delegates and his supporters can look beyond it this weekend.
"These are dirty tricks and we were expecting it," he said.
Thao may find a political ally in the other strong contender for the endorsement: former city council member Pat Harris. He represented the Highland Park and Macalester Groveland neighborhoods, home to the city's most politically powerful. He's a one-time case manager for Catholic Charities and founder of Serving Our Troops, a veterans' service group. He's a now a 51-year-old investment banker.
On the campaign trail, Harris is touting a plan to recalibrate the city's financial portfolio and bring in tens of millions of dollars in new investment for city neighborhoods.
Unlike the other two contenders, Harris has said he plans to run in November no matter what the outcome this weekend. The election is non-partisan and won't have a primary this year, so candidates can stay in until the end.
The fourth DFLer in the race is former St. Paul school board member Tom Goldstein.
Goldstein, 60, is a renowned contrarian, best known for his opposition to public subsidies for sports stadiums and the Palace Theater.
At this point, though, Goldstein is a longshot for the endorsement, with fewer than 3 percent of the pledged delegates.
But there's no guarantee anyone will get the party nod.
And ranked choice voting ups the stakes. There's no guarantee an un-endorsed contender could get a one-on-one shot against the party favorite. That could make the endorsement a decisive factor — and the battle for it more contentious than ever.
It will be a key test to see if the DFL can get behind a single candidate, said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs.
"There are plenty of grounds to disagree," he said, "and I think we're going to see all the knives out."