Minnesota is finally getting a taste of life in the cross hairs of two presidential campaigns.
The airwaves are humming with attack ads. Former President Bill Clinton and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan rearranged their schedules to fit in visits to Minnesota. Polls indicate that President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are running close in a state that was relegated to the political backwater, overshadowed by such swing states as Wisconsin and Ohio.
It remains to be seen whether this last-minute burst of interest really means Minnesota's 10 electoral votes are up for grabs.
"I don't think it means Minnesota is a battleground state," said political scientist Henriët Hendriks, who studies campaign tactics in safe vs. swing states at St. Olaf College in Northfield. "There's not much chance that a few visits or a little bit of ads will really change anything."
Minnesota has not gone Republican in a White House race since Richard Nixon in 1972. Obama maintains a lead in the polls and his campaign has been on the ground here for more than a year, quietly mobilizing a grassroots network in a state where Romney has no offices.
But the recent spate of ads and attention can energize supporters, Hendriks said. And in campaign offices across the Twin Cities this week, there was energy in the air.
"I'm giving up my free time to work for some change. Change for the better, I think," said Corey Peterson, a senior at Lakeville North High School who has spent about 60 hours this fall volunteering for Romney and other local Republican candidates.
When Romney didn't open an office in Minnesota, state Republicans opened their own -- 39 of them.
Monday evening, Peterson was one of two dozen volunteers at the Burnsville Victory Office, making calls to mobilize other volunteers for a final weekend of door knocking and get-out-the-vote efforts. Romney posters and yard signs filled the room. A flier on the door promised that volunteers would be entered in a drawing for a free iPod.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," said Pat Shortridge, chairman of the cash-strapped state Republican Party, which is relying on volunteers and help from local parties to keep the lights on in the so-called victory centers. "Because the party faced some challenges ... We got back to being a grass roots, volunteer-driven party."
Recent polls, Shortridge said, gave Minnesota's GOP activists "a little jolt" and brought in new volunteers.
"The notion that we might win really does motivate people," he said.
A few dozen volunteers were busy that same night at the Obama for America office in St. Paul, one of the campaign's 11 state offices. Some worked the phone banks, others slapped mailing labels on campaign literature. The walls were covered with bright Obama murals, the windows were cluttered with campaign signs: Women for Obama, African-Americans for Obama, Latinos for Obama, Rural Americans for Obama, Hmong Americans for Obama.
Alice Mapes of St. Paul was one of the first volunteers to walk through the door of the first Obama campaign office in the Twin Cities, back in October 2011, when the operation consisted of a desk and a pile of office supplies.
After a year of making phone calls, stuffing envelopes and recruiting other volunteers, Mapes said she can feel other Democrats getting pumped up as Election Day nears.
"I believe in what President Obama is doing, and I really feel that he needs another four years to continue his work," she said.
Referring to mid-term elections that gave Republicans control of the U.S. House, Mapes said she was driven in part "because of 2010, when I saw what happened when you fell asleep at the wheel, and I don't want that to happen again."
The poll numbers and sudden Republican interest in Minnesota gave Obama volunteers such as Elmore James of St. Paul a new sense of urgency.
"We can't take it for granted," said James, who puts in hours a day canvassing in downtown St. Paul, reminding people to vote. "There's a sense of resolve now. We need to get the president's votes out to the polls."
After being virtually ignored for months, Minnesotans are still getting used to seeing the state come up in national discussions about the 2012 election.
Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod on Wednesday pledged to "shave off my mustache of 40 years" if the president doesn't carry Minnesota. Ditto for Pennsylvania and Michigan, two other Democratic strongholds where the Romney campaign has shown new interest.
The Minnesota Republican Party gleefully responded with mailings that urged supporters to "Make Axelrod Shave It."
The first Romney campaign ads ran in Minnesota last week, soon matched by the Obama campaign. On Wednesday, the pro-Romney superPAC Restore Our Future announced a $1.1 million TV ad buy in Minnesota.
Each campaign painted the other side's last-minute foray into Minnesota as a sign of worry.
Republican strategist Brian McClung said he thinks the state is becoming an authentic battleground.
"I think this is real," he said. "Campaigns don't spend money unless they believe that expenditure can make a difference. To believe the Democrats' spin, you have to believe the Romney campaign has unlimited funds and can just choose to invest it in states all across the country, and they're not doing that. ... They're looking at the polling numbers and they're taking advantage of an opportunity to play offense instead of defense."
Jennifer Brooks 651-925-5049