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Schoolrooms, community centers and libraries across Minnesota filled to bursting Tuesday night as Minnesotans poured out in record-setting numbers for precinct caucuses that put the state in the thick of a full-throttle presidential contest.
Democrat Barack Obama cruised to a blow-out victory over rival Hillary Clinton, while Republican Mitt Romney scored a decisive triumph over John McCain.
Swept up in the fever of taking part in what amounted to a national primary, Minnesotans virtually stormed their caucus sites. At Burnsville High School, organizers ran out of nametags before the event even started.
"I bought 200 nametags and we're all out," said Chuck Erickson. "I had no idea it would be like this. We're blowing the doors off."
Other sites ran out of sign-up sheets, created traffic jams and saw lines out the door as Minnesotans struggled to cast a ballot in the narrow time allotted.
The results mean that Obama will win a majority of the state's 72 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Clinton is expected to get some Minnesota delegates, however, because the party awards them proportionally. State Democrats also have 16 superdelegates who will remain uncommitted until the convention.
The Republican caucus vote is not binding and does not directly allocate delegates, but is an indicator of where state party support lies.
The race had reached a frenzied pitch here in recent days with a string of recent candidate visits that included a 20,000-person rally at Target Center for Obama and visits by Clinton, Romney and Ron Paul.
Paul, a maverick Republican with a strong libertarian streak, posted one of his strongest showings anywhere in the country here in Minnesota, running in double-digit percentages across much of the state. In most other states, Paul has seldom made it out of the low single digits.
Republican Mike Huckabee also showed surprising strength in Minnesota, holding even with McCain in several regions of the state and coming in second to Romney in southern Minnesota, a Republican stronghold.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a McCain cheerleader and national co-chairman of his campaign, was unable to translate his support for McCain into results. While McCain won handily in most of the 24 states in contention on Tuesday, Pawlenty was predicting by early afternoon that Minnesota would go against the grain and go for Romney.
Good campaign, candidate
Sentiments turned on a dime among caucusgoers on both sides, with some swayed by last-minute pitches, debate appearances or just a feeling.
At a caucus on the Macalester College campus in St. Paul, the first student in the door was Zoe Christianson, 19, a first-year creative writing collegian from Kansas who had decided only hours earlier to cast her vote for Obama rather than Clinton.
"Because of her experience, I had trusted her more," Christianson said. "But when I saw him debate, he seemed so sure of himself. He seems to be bringing a human face to politics."
At Eden Prairie High School, Minnetonka resident Donna Hoel, 69, opted for Clinton's decades in politics. "Plus," she said, "I want to see a female president."
"I'm an incredibly happy guy right now," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who chaired Obama's Minnesota campaign. "There was a question of whether the excitement he's generated could be turned into votes. This proves it could be."
Rybak said he was surprised by breadth of his candidate's 2-to-1 victory margin and attributed it to the extraordinarily high turnout statewide and the campaign's on-the-ground organization.
"I've seen great campaigns with mediocre candidates, but we had a great campaign with a great candidate and that's why he won big," he said. "The Clinton campaign had a great operation, too, but the difference was a great candidate."
Buck Humphrey, who managed Clinton's Minnesota campaign, tipped his hat to his opponents. "He had a good organization here, and I want to congratulate those guys," he said.
Catching the movement
On the DFL side, many were eager to be part of history, casting ballots for what eventually will be either the first female or the first black nominee.
Obama ran strongly nearly everywhere in Minnesota, besting Clinton in more than three-fourths of the state's 88 counties, according to preliminary returns.
He was extraordinarily dominant in the Democratic strongholds of Hennepin and Ramsey counties and handily picked up wide majorities throughout the rest of the metro area.
He did nearly as well in the other DFL redoubt of the Iron Range.
Republicans had the chance to make a little history of their own. Tuesday's caucus begins the process of selecting delegates that will attend the national GOP convention to be held in St. Paul this September.
In Hastings, Paul Dawson, and Matt Koethe, both 18, were among the 300 Republicans crammed into a local high school for their caucus.
"I caught the movement, I guess," said Dawson, who respects Romney for his business experience. Koethe said he came to the caucus because "I'm very conservative and I kind of like to be involved in it. I really don't want a liberal for president."
Ron Erickson, 65, a retired criminal investigator from Maplewood, was among many in a fractured Republican party who were wrestling with their choices.
"McCain didn't support the president's tax cuts, but he may be the most electable," Erickson said. "Huckabee may have the strongest moral values, but didn't he want to give benefits to some illegal immigrant children?" As for Romney, Erickson mused, "He flip-flops. Some people wonder about the change in his position on abortion."
Erickson said he wasn't the only undecided one.
"Everyone I talk to, they don't know who to vote for," he said.
But Brian Nuth knew. An Iraq War veteran from North St. Paul, Nuth was among the McCain supporters filling the Maplewood GOP caucus. McCain's experience in the military and as a prisoner of war had tipped him.
"The guys on the ground need to be running the show, not the politicians," said Nuth, 24.
Republican efforts have been less visible in Minnesota than other states, primarily because Republicans here conduct only a straw poll and does not award delegates until later.
But that doesn't mean the contest here wasn't ferocious.
"We've done everything we can to organize for Romney and it's paying off," said Brian Sullivan, a GOP national committeeman and one-time gubernatorial candidate. "Romney was able to convince people that he was the true conservative."
At the Maplewood GOP caucuses, Jennifer Krauth, 27, was backing Huckabee.
"I like his pro-life choices and his religious background," said Krauth.
There was no exit polling in Minnesota after the caucuses, so there were no immediate details on what swayed voters to the victors.
Staff writers Pat Doyle, John McIntyre, Jenna Ross, Maria Baca, Jean Hopfensperger, Jon Tevlin, Tony Lonetree, Larry Oakes, and Terry Collins contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org • 651-222-1288 email@example.com • 612-673-7184