But challenger Marty Seifert says the delegates are the ones who will choose the nominee.
Supporters rushed into the Republican state convention Thursday to plaster walls with posters and prepare for battle over whom they will endorse Friday for governor.
Into that frenetic swirl, one of the two top candidates -- Rep. Tom Emmer -- dropped a last-minute political bombshell: An endorsement by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
He walked breezily around the Minneapolis Convention Center, touting the trophy he hopes will embellish his standing as a "true, independent conservative" and push him ahead of Rep. Marty Seifert, his main competition.
The news reverberated through the convention floor, sending a surge of energy through the campaign of a candidate who was nearly unknown six months ago.
Seifert, widely seen as more organized and savvy in convention floor tactics, downplayed the endorsement. Taking a brief break from glad-handing, he predicted the Palin endorsement would make little difference to delegates.
"Last I checked, she wasn't a registered delegate to the state convention," Seifert said. "While I have respect for her, I like her as a person, at the end of the day people are not changing their minds based on that. It is all about keeping your base, grabbing the undecided and converting the Emmer folks."
As 2,000 delegates started to trickle in, Seifert and Emmer began their final man-on-man offensive to woo the few who remain undecided.
The 2008 vice presidential pick and Republican superstar used every buzzword in the Republican playbook to describe her choice. Emmer, she said in a Facebook post, is a straight-talking, patriotic, conservative, family man who wants "to leave his kids a better future." Palin, who met privately with Emmer when she was in Minnesota this month, also noted that Emmer used to play hockey for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. The Emmer campaign said he sent a letter to Palin a month ago seeking her blessing.
While James Brown and Twisted Sister songs blared, much of the talk was on the Palin endorsement.
"This will get people very excited," said Chris Kumpula, a delegate from Elk River. "This will bring a lot of energy to the campaign. It focuses the idea that this is a conservative guy."
But the news also turned off some activists.
"I don't think it matters," said Mike Jensen, an Owatonna delegate. He called Seifert a "very consistent, steady and solid conservative. He'd govern from integrity and honesty, not emotion."
Andy Brehm, a Seifert supporter and delegate, and that "I respect Sarah and the following she has within the Republican Party, but I don't think she has a role here. This contest is about the delegates who know Minnesota and who know these candidates."
The Club Jager crowd
Both candidates tried some one-on-one action in an impromptu forum at a Minneapolis bar where fans of libertarian idol Ron Paul congregated.
"It's like down to the wire, getting every last bit of delegates' votes," said Nathan Hansen, one of the more than 20 delegates at Club Jager on Tuesday night.
Winning over a chunk of those Club Jager activists, known more formally as the Liberty Caucus, may be another key to endorsement.
Turned on to politics by 2008 GOP presidential candidate Paul, a Texas congressman, they make up 15 to 20 percent of the convention's delegates. With a libertarian bent, they are a potentially powerful but diffuse bunch, who share common ideas, but who won't necessarily vote together.
Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton has gone out of his way to welcome them to the process, but many remain wary of the party and its power.
They also are skeptical about the gubernatorial candidates.
"A lot them were going for Emmer. A lot of them still are," said Marianne Stebbins, who organized for Paul in Minnesota but who is skipping this year's convention.
But Emmer may have lost some of his Club Jager friends when he picked for his lieutenant governor Annette Meeks, a longtime force in Republican politics. Several told him so at the bar Tuesday night, just after he announced his choice.
"I really like a lot about Tom Emmer, but I have a lot of questions about his running mate," said Bill Paulsen, a Rice County delegate who supported Emmer until his selection of Meeks, who is considered an insider's insider.
On Thursday, Paulsen was considering opting not to endorse. "At this point, I'm really undecided," he said.
Meeks has blue-ribbon GOP credentials. A one-time congressional aide to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Meeks is close to Republican lobbying powerhouse Vin Weber and is in good with veteran power players in GOP politics, such as Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life.
Hansen, who will vote Friday in his second GOP convention, said he's impressed with Seifert's command of the way state government works, but recognizes that the delegates are closely divided.
"I'd say it is split, " Hansen said. "It is kind of like a civil war. I've got friends on all sides."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164