U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz overwhelmingly won a straw poll of Minnesota Republican activists on Saturday, an early sign of strength as GOP presidential candidates begin to eye the state’s upcoming presidential caucus.

Cruz, of Texas, finished first among 14 Republican candidates in the poll of 283 influential party activists gathered for the Minnesota GOP’s State Central Committee, claiming 90 votes. That was almost twice the votes claimed by the second-place finisher, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who had 46 votes. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina came in third with 33 votes.

“Minnesota on March 1, on Super Tuesday, is going to play a critical role,” Cruz said in a recorded appearance played at the GOP meeting at Monticello High School. With his fiery brand of fiscal and social conservatism, Cruz may prove to be a potent force among the activist base of Minnesota’s Republican Party.

Minnesota is one of a dozen states that will hold a primary or caucus that day, which follows the first four presidential contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada in February.

Celebrity businessman Donald Trump finished fourth in Saturday’s straw poll, with 29 votes, followed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul with 28. Retired neurologist Ben Carson had 23 votes.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie each had four votes, followed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich with three and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with two each. Nineteen voters were undecided, and three candidates got no votes: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and two other former governors: New York’s George Pataki and Virginia’s Jim Gilmore.

Early signs of who to watch

Saturday’s vote involved a tiny percentage of the people who will participate in the March 1 caucus. But the delegates and alternates to the GOP State Central Committee are among the most dedicated party activists, and state chairman Keith Downey said he sees it as an early sign of which campaigns to watch in the coming weeks and months.

“While this is a fairly small slice of the Republican base, it’s really an influential group of our party’s thought leaders,” Downey said. “It’s a statement about the strength of the field in Minnesota.”

The first- and second-place finishes by Cruz and Rubio reflect the current state of play in the contest, with the candidates now focused on the four early states. Cruz and Rubio have traded shots in recent weeks as both have achieved high standing in polls.

It was also a surprising outcome for the two most nontraditional Republican candidates, Trump and Carson, who have both led various polls and sucked up much of the media attention in recent months.

“I just don’t believe outsiders should be seriously considered for the most powerful position in the Western world without showing some pertinent experience,” said state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who said his top choices are Rubio and Cruz.

Cruz visit possible

Supporters of Cruz, Rubio and Fiorina were among the most organized at Saturday’s meeting in Monticello. Cruz’s booth featured Christmas music and free treats; clad in red T-shirts, Fiorina supporters fanned through the school auditorium passing out her campaign literature.

In a recorded message, Fiorina argued that Republicans do want a political outsider.

“For too long, we’ve elected someone from the political class, then watched as election after election, nothing changes,” she said.

Brandon Lerch, the Minnesota organizer for Cruz, said the campaign would look to build on Saturday’s win with an upcoming announcement about a Minnesota leadership team — and, he said, a likely visit or visits by the candidate before March 1.

“We view Minnesota as a state that Senator Cruz can win,” Lerch said.

Carson recently landed a prominent Minnesota organizer in Ron Carey, a former state GOP chairman.

“He’s honorable, a man of character,” Carey said. “In a time of crisis I think Minnesotans want to rally around that.”

Trump had little organized support at Saturday’s meeting, save for a clutch of supporters sporting his signature bright red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps.

“He says what he thinks and means it,” Bob Tatreau, a Woodbury retiree and party activist, said of Trump. “We need him.”