Republican Party activists cast early preferences Saturday for 2014's big races, choosing among candidates who seek the party's embrace while distancing themselves from its problems.

"I am an unapologetic fiscal and social conservative. Not in an angry or obnoxious kind of way, but in a Lutheran-from-northern-Minnesota kind of way," Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson told the hundreds of party faithful gathered in Blaine. "I've never been afraid of a fight, when a fight is required. Occasionally, it's required internally."

Johnson came in first in the party's gubernatorial straw poll, with 35 percent of the vote.

State Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville, a close second in the gubernatorial poll with 27 percent, trashed Republicans, the business community and even some Senate colleagues for talking about what conservatives can't achieve in Minnesota and for what he called "gutless leadership."

"We need to choose resolve over retreat, and we need to choose victory over defeat," Thompson said. "We need more of those who lead."

He also stressed his belief that the party should push for union-limiting legislation.

Where Republicans take that offer of leadership is uncertain. Nationally, polls find Republican Party popularity in the basement, and it is not clear how it will bounce back. The Minnesota party still is $1.3 million in debt, down $630,000 from two years ago, and has few high-profile officeholders.

Next year, Minnesota Republicans hope to take down both DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken, something national handicappers do not believe is likely.

But on Saturday, the party faithful said they have a new resolve to do it.

"We lost our focus on the people," said party Chairman Keith Downey. "We have spent more time arguing among ourselves than boldly proposing our ideals and our solutions. And we let the demonizing rhetoric of the left define us.

"I'm here today to tell you: 'No more.' "

But Republicans have more arguments ahead. In the governor's race, Johnson and Thompson are the only two of five announced candidates who made it clear that they will drop out unless they have GOP endorsement. That all but guarantees that the gubernatorial candidates will square off in a 2014 primary.

Johnson and Thompson's pledges may have helped them Saturday with Republican activists, but may not in the long run. "Becoming the political-insider candidate makes no sense, especially given the unpopularity of politicians and parties," said former GOP state Chairman Pat Shortridge.

Shortridge is working with gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour, a businessman with no political offices on his résumé. Honour came in last among the activists in straw-poll votes, earning 4 percent.

He was bested by a surprise third-place showing from write-in candidate Marty Seifert. Seifert, a former House minority leader and 2010 gubernatorial candidate, has not announced another run for governor but may do so. He attended the event but did not do much schmoozing.

Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove came in a disappointing fourth, followed by Hibbing special education teacher Rob Farnsworth.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Julianne Ortman received the encouragement she has sought in her bid to take down Franken. In the nonbinding U.S. Senate straw poll, Ortman, of Chanhassen, received 37 percent of the vote, making her a clear favorite among the GOP faithful.

Businessman and first-time candidate Mike McFadden came in a distant but still solid second in the Senate straw poll, with 22 percent. Next were late entrant and GOP activist Harold Shudlick (13 percent), St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg (12 percent), state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka (11 percent) and 1996 U.S. Senate candidate Monti Moreno (3 percent.)