ST. CLOUD - After years of quiet, relentless organizing, followers of libertarian-leaning GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul have exploded inside the Minnesota Republican Party, becoming its most potent army.
"This is one of the greatest states that I have witnessed, where I have seen the transition, where the enthusiasm's there," the grinning Texas congressman told hundreds of exuberant activists Saturday at the state party's convention in St. Cloud, where he won 12 of 13 open delegate spots to the GOP national convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. The 13th went to former presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann -- and only after a Paul supporter dropped out to let her have that spot.
In Minnesota, more than almost any other state, Paul forces have completed a historic party takeover. They proved their might Saturday, but also firmly established Minnesota as a remote GOP outpost nationally.
Now state GOP activists will march to the national convention firmly backing Paul rather than presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Longtime activists realized Saturday that their party has changed from one that stressed religious values to one focused on ending the Federal Reserve Bank, bringing back the gold standard and bringing about a strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution.
The conflict between the two forces created a tense and anxious crowd.
In front of 2,000 Minnesota Republicans, GOP National Committeeman Jeff Johnson laid out in stark terms the level of anger at the St. Cloud convention.
To "Ron Paul haters," he advised: "Get over it. ... If we don't grow as a party, we die."
To "Ron Paul lovers," he made it clear that longtime GOP activists are angry because they've been displaced. "Some of the anger is from people who have been sitting in those chairs for 20 years or 30 years doing hard work and are not here this year because you are here instead," he said.
Adding to their anger was the belief among some that Paul folks might simply abandon the party once Paul drops out. Johnson advised them: "Don't disappear."
For activists, discouragement
Paul's ascent in the Minnesota GOP puzzles some longtime activists. He is hardly a charismatic firebrand, giving speeches that can be more meandering than soaring political oratory. And while many politicians relish the chance to dive into crowds at big political events, Paul keeps to himself.
When hundreds of supporters gathered at his caucus-night reception in the Twin Cities, the Texas congressman sat quietly with advisers in a curtained-off area a few feet from the crowds.
"Dr. Paul is something of a mystery to me," former state Rep. Phil Krinkie said. But "he keeps the people focused and energized."
State GOP officials, facing financial turmoil and recently threatened with eviction from their headquarters for not paying rent, have moved to embrace the newcomers.
Unlike four years ago, when Paul was forced to speak from the party's convention lawn because he would not pledge allegiance to the eventual presidential nominee, he got an open-armed embrace from the party this year. He was welcomed to the delegates' stage, held a fundraiser for the party and got a hero's welcome.
"I really see a lot of contrition for the party's sins," said Pastor Kevin Erickson of Cross Hill Church in Virginia, Minn., a Paul supporter.
After years of arguing that Paul supporters would "embarrass" the GOP, it's hard for the party to say things like that "when they're the ones getting eviction notices," Erickson said.
'They took over, basically'
Paul power comes from a sharply different place than the Tea Party movement, which the GOP welcomed just a few years ago. Tea Party members and the libertarian-minded sound similar when they talk of less spending and a dramatically reduced government, but beyond that, they part ways. Libertarians preach less intrusion in private life, question all federal income taxes and want to leave moral issues up to states.
The change also marks a clear split from when state Republicans made "family values" the passport for party entry. Instead of evangelizing about religious principles, Paul disciples cheer for a scaled-back foreign policy and the freedom to drink raw milk and grow hemp.
"They took over, basically. Nobody else was organizing," said Andy Parrish, who used to work for Bachmann and is now helping to manage the campaign for the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "These libertarians don't believe in natural law whatsoever."
Mitch Mueller of St. Paul, sporting a Minnesota for Marriage button, said he's uncomfortable with the change. The party leadership, he said, is "more concerned about being on the right side of history than on being on the right side of nature or morality."
The new folks, with anti-intrusion government design on their minds, have rejected several party stalwarts and their establishment principles.
"I don't think that's going to resonate with a lot of Minnesota voters," said state convention delegate Robert Farnsworth of Hibbing.
Despite those doubts, Paul power floored longtime Republican powers. Romney forces feared its power so much they sent a cadre of high-powered backers to Minnesota to push the Romney brand. It didn't matter. Paul nearly swept the field in every contest.
On Friday, State Rep. Kurt Bills quickly swept aside mainstream candidates for the U.S. Senate endorsement. In his brief tenure at the Legislature, he attracted little notice from colleagues or the public until he became the Ron Paul candidate. Bills, a high school teacher, sounded the same notes Paul espouses and promised to support him until he drops out of the presidential race. If Paul leaves the race and Romney gets the nomination, Bills said he'll make the switch.
"We will support the endorsed candidate. And if that's Mitt Romney. That's Mitt Romney," he said.
Freshman U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack -- the only GOP member of the congressional delegation to address the convention -- has carefully avoided publicly antagonizing Paul supporters. With a plea for a new president and a new U.S. senator, Cravaack also asked for unity.
"We're like a big family," he said. "Sometimes you have your squabbles, but when you walk out that door, nobody messes with us."
Staff writers Baird Helgeson and Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report.