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WASHINGTON - Libertarian favorite Ron Paul brought his insurgent presidential campaign to Minnesota, and its effects are likely to be felt for some time within the state's GOP ranks.
While the Texas congressman finished a distant second to upset victor Rick Santorum, more than a quarter of the party delegates chosen in Tuesday night's caucuses could be Paul acolytes, with little allegiance to the party establishment and its local officeholders.
As Paul moves on to primary contests in Arizona and Michigan, his Minnesota supporters have made clear they aren't going away.
Paul campaign manager John Tate said in a statement Tuesday that "in Minnesota where we have finished a solid second, we also have a strong majority of the state convention delegates. The Paul campaign is well-organized to win the bulk of delegates there."
That could position Paul supporters to influence events in coming months as the party turns to local nominating conventions for state and federal office seekers.
In Golden Valley on Tuesday night, Paul himself made the delegate strategy clear.
"Straw poll is one thing, but there's another thing -- delegates!" he said to cheers.
Tabytha Luikens, 42, said at Paul's evening party that the straw poll was just her beginning. She is now a delegate. "The fight has just begun," said Luikens, a child care provider from Savage.
Eric Radtke, vice chairman for the GOP in the Second Congressional District in Shakopee, said that while Paul won only half the votes in Radtke's Shakopee precinct, he picked up four out of the five delegates -- 80 percent -- who would move on to the next local party convention.
"Ron Paul trained all his people to become delegates," said Radtke, a Romney supporter.
Lower turnout, larger impact
The strong finish by two second-tier candidates came amid declining overall turnout in Tuesday night's Minnesota GOP caucuses. Altogether, some 50,000 votes were cast for the four remaining GOP candidates, compared with 63,000 in 2008, when Mitt Romney carried the state.
And across the state, caucuses were peppered with new faces motivated by Santorum and Paul.
"I was impressed to see all the fresh faces," Radtke said. "They were people who haven't necessarily been plugged in to GOP events in the past."
State Republican strategists downplayed the threat of a Paul takeover of the Minnesota GOP, noting that much of his support came from young activists in urban pockets like Minneapolis and St. Paul, areas where the GOP has little influence.
"After that, it becomes tougher because you get more of the rank-and-file people, especially in the rural areas," said Ben Golnik, who managed Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign in Minnesota. Paul finished with 27 percent of the caucus vote Tuesday, second to Santorum, who won with 45 percent.
The drop in caucus participation, combined with the runway victory of Santorum's socially conservative backers, could make the Paul effect all the more noticeable. Some say that could be a worrisome trend for more centrist GOP officeholders as well as for overall party unity.
"Santorum and Paul people have very different agendas," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College. "Turnout is down, fewer people are involved, and when we look at who is involved, we don't have people who are going to easily coalesce around a common program."
Party officials say they see strength in diversity.
"Both Santorum and Ron Paul ran really great grass-roots campaigns here in Minnesota," said Kelly Fenton, deputy chair for the state party. "My goodness, we welcome new voices to our party."
Paul made his presence felt in the 2008 caucuses, too, but some party activists say it wasn't lasting. "It's always a good thing when people show up," said Derek Brigham, vice chair for the state GOP's Third Congressional District. But Brigham, a past Michele Bachmann supporter with a strong libertarian streak, added, "It's not worth a hill of beans unless they stay around."
Marianne Stebbins, chair of Paul's Minnesota campaign, said Paul supporters shocked the more traditional Republicans with their presence a few years ago.
"We took them by surprise, so there was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction," she said. But now, "Ron Paul people are all throughout the party" including holding elected GOP positions. "We are much better understood," she said.
Craig Westover, a former state party spokesman and Paul delegate, said one effect from Paul's showing is clear.
"The thing with Ron Paul," he said, "is today the Republican Party is talking about issues they never talked about before."
Staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.