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Fresh from regaining front-runner status, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney squeezed in a Minnesota stop Wednesday to harness his new momentum into a strong showing in the state's caucuses next week.
"It's time for us to bring a new definition to hope," Romney told a cheering crowd in Eagan, a day after a commanding win in the Florida primary. "Hope should mean a good job and good paycheck, not a faded word on an old bumper sticker."
Romney is the second GOP presidential candidate to visit the state in three days, highlighting the newfound importance of Minnesota in what has been a bitter and ferociously contested race for the GOP presidential nomination. For years, the state's caucuses were lost in the national din, lumped in among more than a dozen states selecting their preferences for president on the same day.
This time, Minnesota has the potential to provide a boost to some candidates, particularly those who have fallen behind.
"We used to be a footnote of a footnote," said David Sturrock, a GOP activist from Marshall and the former treasurer for the Minnesota Republican Party. "This year we will get national attention."
On the air, at grass roots
Political groups backing Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blitzed the airwaves in Florida, and there are reports that supporters of Romney and of former Sen. Rick Santorum are buying ads in Minnesota. Romney supporters anticipate another visit by him before Tuesday's caucuses. On Monday, Santorum touched down in the tiny town of Luverne, in the southwest corner of the state, speaking to a crowd of more than 400 for nearly 90 minutes. He too says he hopes to return to the state before the caucuses.
Meanwhile, Texas Rep. Ron Paul's campaign has quietly held regular recruiting meetings to build a formidable army that could pull off a caucus night upset. Paul has been trailing badly in the polls, but winning the state's preference poll would give him bragging rights and a chance at a sizable chunk of the state's 40 delegates. Minnesota GOP delegates will not be awarded on the basis of Tuesday's straw poll.
"Our campaign is working hard at the grass-roots level in Minnesota," said Gary Howard, a Paul campaign spokesman. Minnesota, he said, is "a state that is often crucial to success in the general election."
Republicans expect only about 60,000 GOP voters to come out for the caucuses, a number small enough that it could make it easier for an organized grass-roots campaign like Paul's to have a strong finish, possibly even a win, several political watchers said.
Gingrich's campaign has not announced any Minnesota campaign swings.
Romney's visit brought fresh signs that no candidate has a lock on Minnesota's GOP voters, particularly the established party candidate.
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Romney's campaign co-chairman, said he could not guarantee his candidate would win Tuesday. Pawlenty said the low turnout of the state's caucuses make predictions difficult.
"I think he will do well, but I certainly can't predict who will win," Pawlenty said.
Democrats seized on Romney's visit as a possible sign that he might in trouble in the state, despite the support of the two-term Republican former governor. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a strong supporter of President Obama, said the right wing of the GOP has pushed Romney too far right for Minnesotans and the nation.
In 2008, Romney crushed U.S. Sen. John McCain in the Minnesota caucuses, 41 percent to 22 percent. McCain went on to win the nomination.
Democrats and the Independence Party also will hold caucuses, but with far less intrigue. As President Obama fires up his campaign machine, Democrats are making a strong push to engage minority communities lately, but still expect only about 30,000 voters at the caucuses. The Independence Party will have about 43 caucus locations around the state and unveil a live, online caucus. The party won't be selecting a presidential candidate but will poll its members on a proposed Minnesota Vikings stadium and a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Candidates up close
On Monday, Santorum swept into the tiny Republican stronghold of Luverne, population 4,652, bringing a bit of presidential campaign glamour. Community leaders said they believe it is the first time a presidential candidate visited the town.
Santorum was looking for a much-needed jolt of enthusiasm after winning the Iowa caucuses early last month, only to see his campaign get swamped by the money and political machinery of Romney and Gingrich.
Santorum spoke directly to the importance of Minnesota to his campaign.
"It's not as famous as the Iowa caucuses, but the results are just as important," he said.
Republican voters in the area are wrestling with their decision.
"I am not firm at all; I have flip-flopped a lot," said Kim Hummel, a Jackson County commissioner.
Edward Murphy, 59, had not made up his mind between Romney and Paul. But the lure of a real-life appearance by a GOP candidate still in contention was too much to resist.
"I didn't get excited about any of them, frankly," said Murphy, of Luverne. "But it doesn't happen very often that you live three blocks from where the candidates will be, so you have to come out and listen."
Bill Weber, chairman of Rock County Republican Party, was an early supporter of Santorum.
"He's been very consistent in wanting to talk about the issues," said Weber, who introduced Santorum to a capacity crowd of about 450.
After the town hall, Santorum sat in a booth at the Pizza Ranch restaurant next door. As he ate salad and pizza, supporters, customers and the curious walked by for a quick photo, a handshake or an autograph.
With the hour edging close to 10 p.m. and staffers eager to depart, Santorum opened up about the importance of Minnesota to his strategy.
"Minnesota is a state we think we can do well in," he said. "Hopefully we can break through in a state or two. And you never know what state that will be."
Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: To find your precinct caucus, go to caucusfinder.sos.state.mn.us.