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State could boost or break one of remaining 5 Republicans

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Republicans should thank -- or curse -- the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Without those early voting states, Minnesota Republicans would have a bakers' dozen worth of candidates to pick among when...

Caucus workshop
Melissa Hamilton, left, Republican Party of Minnesota Political Director, and Vicki Wright, Minnesota DFL Training and Party Affairs Director answer questions at a precinct caucus workshop Thursday at Wellstone Center at Neighborhood House in St. Paul. (Jean Pieri | Pioneer Press)

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Republicans should thank - or curse - the voters of Iowa, New Hampshire,  South Carolina and Nevada.

Without those early voting states, Minnesota Republicans would have a bakers’ dozen worth of candidates to pick among when they go to caucus Tuesday. Caucus-goers could have endured speeches from 13 supporters, organizers could have been forced to find room for displays from 13 candidates, and vote counters could have had to tally results based on 13 candidates.

Instead, given results from the states at the front of the presidential picking line, only five Republican presidential candidates remain as Minnesota options: Real estate mogul Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

The winnowed field leaves Republicans in the state with more power - a decisive Minnesota win on Super Tuesday could give a candidate a needed boost to continue - and more heartbreak.

“My heart really was with Rand Paul,” said Camden Pike, a St. Anthony Republican. Pike, who is running for the state House, even went to Iowa to help Paul, the son of former Republican candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, with that state’s caucus.

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But Paul, like eight other candidates who spent months wooing Republicans, quit the race on Feb. 3 after a distant fifth-place finish in Iowa.

“There is a lot to like about John Kasich as well. I do, however, believe that the best way

forward is with Marco Rubio,” Pike said, who firmed up his choice only last week.

The race in Minnesota is on equally uncertain ground going into the final weekend before Republicans make their picks.

“I think it’s still a pretty open battle. Donald Trump could arguably be said to have the momentum. At the same time there’s Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in second and third place; you could argue that they’ve got a solid path to victory,” Minnesota Republican Party chair Keith Downey said.

‘A little quiet here’

Trump, the mogul-turned-reality TV star-turned candidate, has dominated voting and polling in other states, except for a squeaker of a win in Iowa by Cruz.

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But most of those early states were bombarded with candidate rallies, television ads and dozens of paid staff. Not so in Minnesota, which votes in its Republican presidential preference election on the same day as 13 other states. Only one Republican campaign - Rubio’s - has opened an office in Minnesota, and that happened in mid-February.

“It’s been a little bit quiet down here,” said Aaron Miller, chairman of southern Minnesota’s Olmsted County Republican Party.

For Republicans, part of the explanation may be simple math. Fourteen states will hold presidential contests on March 1 and for the GOP, Minnesota barely cracks the top 10 in delegates up for grabs, according to calculations from Eric J. Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance and author of the Smart Politics blog. Texas and Georgia also have their contests on Tuesday - they have 231 combined delegates up for grabs. Minnesota has 38.

Ostermeier also notes that Minnesota has not had much recent success in picking winners.

In 2012, Republicans picked Rick Santorum as their favorite and Mitt Romney ended up winning the nomination. In 2008, when John McCain won the nomination, Republicans favored Romney at their caucus.

In those past years, the candidates Republicans picked on caucus night had little bearing on the eventual delegate strength the party sent to the nominating convention. This year, for the first time in two decades, the votes of whoever comes out on caucus night will determine who wins Minnesota’s delegate votes at July’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

The message that Minnesota caucus voting matters, that delegate strength is bound to caucus voting, still may not have fully filtered through to campaigns and party faithful.

“Since we have never bound before the conventional wisdom is: Minnesota? Don’t bother,” Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, Rubio’s state chairman, said during the opening of the candidate’s Maple Grove office.

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State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Mazeppa Republican and Cruz state campaign co-chair,

agreed.

“The national campaigns don’t seem to be talking about Minnesota a whole lot,” he said.

Local efforts

But locally, efforts are picking up.

Rubio sent three paid staffers, who had worked for months in Iowa, to Minnesota this month. The candidate himself stopped in Minneapolis this past week.

Rubio is hoping that that effort - plus a pitch that he is a more palatable option to the perceived bombast of Trump and the arch-conservative courting from Cruz - will make Minnesota his first state victory.

He has picked up endorsements from former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, former Gov. Tim

Pawlenty, U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and two-dozen Minnesota legislators. For Coleman, Rubio was a third choice - coming only after both South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dropped out.

But being a second or third choice is just fine, Rubio said at a Minnesota rally last week.

“I can unite this party. You’ve already seen it happening. As people drop out, (more) join our team,” Rubio said in Minneapolis last week.

Cruz, who, like Trump, has relied on volunteers to push his message, has won some Minnesota plaudits as well. In a straw poll of Minnesota Republican Party activists in December, Cruz was the favorite by a large margin. Although nonscientific, that poll was one of the few that targeted the type of audience who generally attends Minnesota caucuses - political veterans, more religious, rather conservative.

“We are running an old-school organization of identifying our supporters locally throughout the state and empowering them to identify and recruit local supporters to win precinct by precinct in all four corners of Minnesota,” said Cruz’s Minnesota director Brandon Lerch, a volunteer.

Cruz himself underscored the effort in a December visit.

“Minnesota is going to be a critical state,” he said.

In Minnesota, Trump’s campaign has almost completely relied on volunteers and organic excitement to bring him supporters. As of Trump’s last federal finance report, his campaign has spent only $120 in Minnesota - all of it for parking at the airport. In contrast, Trump spent almost $730,000 in Iowa and $700,000 in New Hampshire.

But his fame and his supporters are working the state for him.

Brian Braaten, 53, of Rochester has spent 10 to 15 hours a week recently calling would-be Trump supporters to get them to the caucus. Braaten, chair of Rochester Township, said he does not always agree with the things Trump says, yet he appreciates that he “tells it like it is.”

“I like it that he is unfiltered,” Braaten said.

With Tuesday turnout expected to rival the record 65,000 Republicans who caucused in 2008, any surge of support could make the difference.

“Bottom line, this is a grassroots process in Minnesota,” Downey said. “People who are going to show up next Tuesday and cast their votes. We will see what the people of Minnesota think.”


The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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