election 2012

GOP hopefuls sprint to Minnesota

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 6, 2012 - 7:08 AM
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In Eden Prairie at Grace Church, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum chatted and prayed with Pastor Troy Dobbs.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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In a bid to clip Mitt Romney's break-away national momentum, the remaining Republican presidential candidates are scrambling to Minnesota to woo voters in the closing hours before Tuesday's precinct caucuses.

With the path to victory narrowing, the candidates are hoping that a victory in Minnesota convinces contributors and activists that they have the muscle to capture the nomination. "At least for a few days, we are in the center," said Jeff Johnson, a member of the Republican National Committee from Minnesota. Recent polls show that state Republicans' allegiances have shifted wildly, so the race remains wide open. "It's going to be a fun couple of days," Johnson added.

Minnesota's early caucuses have thrust the state into the midst of a presidential campaign blitz not seen in years. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is to arrive Monday, as is Texas Rep. Ron Paul -- who also spent most of Saturday here. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania made several Minnesota appearances Sunday and will be in Rochester Monday morning to make a "major health care speech" near the Mayo Clinic. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the victor in Saturday's Nevada caucuses, won't visit Minnesota before its caucuses, relying on former Gov. Tim Pawlenty to campaign on his behalf.

Santorum, who shook up the race by eking out a surprise victory in last month's Iowa caucuses, has been trying to rejuvenate his campaign after failing to win another state since then.

On Sunday morning, Santorum visited Grace Church in Eden Prairie, telling congregants that God is directing his campaign. His talk focused almost exclusively on his Christian faith and his belief that "God has specifically blessed this country," rather than delving directly into politics.

"I am trying to walk the path that Christ has laid out for me," Santorum told hundreds of congregants at the nondenominational megachurch.

Moments before he addressed the congregation, a new poll showed Santorum with a slight edge in Minnesota.

Public Policy Polling, which works independent of the campaigns, showed Santorum with 29 percent, Romney at 27 percent, Gingrich with 22 percent and Paul trailing at 19 percent.

Seeking bragging rights

Minnesota's caucuses are nonbinding, which means winning the caucus is no guarantee that delegates will support the victor at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. At best, a Minnesota victory gives candidates bragging rights as they head into the most intense weeks of the caucus and primary season.

Caucus-goers on either side tend to be the most ideologically driven and, at least on the Republican side, they often shun the established party favorite.

Romney easily dominated the state's GOP caucus in 2008, but Arizona Sen. John McCain won the party's nomination.

It is far from certain that Romney can repeat that victory, even with the help of Pawlenty and other high-powered local supporters. That's a big reason why candidates are counting Minnesota as a potential breakthrough state to catapult them back into contention.

"Santorum and Gingrich want to prove that their candidacies are still viable," said Ben Golnik, who was regional campaign manager for McCain four years ago. "Then either one of those guys can say, 'I've won a state' and can stay on."

The poll released Sunday suggests there is still a potential path to a Minnesota victory for any of the four candidates, including Paul, who lags furthest behind among the four. Golnik and other Republican strategists say that low overall turnout combined with caucus-swamping by Paul's thousands of loyal supporters would be the Texan's best hope.

For a candidate such as Santorum, the key to getting supporters to the caucuses rests more in high-impact public appearances.

After speaking at Grace Church, Santorum sat among congregants for the rest of the service and then shook hands with well-wishers before departing for northern Minnesota.

He spent the afternoon in Bemidji, meeting residents in the small city where his trademark sweater-vests are made.

"I am still walking, walking the path," he said. "I will leave it up to [God] to see how it turns out."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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