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TAMPA, FLA - Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan will accept the GOP nomination for vice president on Wednesday, making him the first Upper Midwest politician on a major-party presidential ticket since Minnesota's Walter Mondale ran for president in 1984.
Many Midwestern Republicans believe Ryan's pick could become a crucial factor that helps nudge Minnesota squarely into battleground territory. Polls already show that Wisconsin, once a Democratic redoubt, is now in play.
"I think we can win on either side of the St. Croix," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told Minnesota delegates Tuesday. "Minnesota is in play, and I think with Paul on the ticket, it puts Wisconsin in play. ... If we keep repeating the truth, there's no telling what the future will hold."
Minnesota Republicans face a daunting challenge to put the state in Romney's win column. The state has not gone Republican in a presidential election since 1972. Barack Obama won the state by 10 points in 2008, extending a GOP drought that goes back to Richard Nixon's landslide victory over George McGovern.
Polling so far this year supports the premise that Minnesota will stay in Obama's camp, with polls showing him ahead by anywhere from 6 to 15 points. However, the most recent polls were done a month ago, and Republicans point to the shaky economy and Minnesota's recent history of razor-thin statewide races in saying they believe their chances are far better than history would suggest.
"It's going to be a lot more in play than you think," said U.S. Rep. John Kline, the senior Republican in the Minnesota congressional delegation. "The addition of Ryan to the ticket has only helped that."
Kline made no bold predictions, but said Republicans are no longer writing off Minnesota. "There's going to be money spent here, which in itself is new," he said.
Kochs run ads in Minnesota
Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch, is already running ads in Minnesota as part of a larger $27 million ad buy launched earlier this month. Nobody thinks the group would spend money in Minnesota if it saw no chance of turning the long Republican drought in the state.
Others say they detect signs from the Obama campaign that it doesn't see Minnesota as a lock.
"I think it will be a battleground state," said Minnesota's Republican National Committeeman Jeff Johnson. "Just the fact that [President] Obama and [Vice President Joe] Biden are spending so much time in Minnesota show they think it could be a battle ground state, too." Biden was in the Twin Cities earlier this month, days ahead of Romney's first visit to the state as presumptive nominee.
Facing the first major ad buy of the presidential campaign in Minnesota, DFL organizer Jeff Blodgett, state director of President Obama's campaign in Minnesota, said Democrats are taking nothing for granted.
"Minnesota is a must-win state for the president," Blodgett said. "I don't care what the record of presidential races is."
No other state has as long a blue streak as Minnesota in presidential contests. But a string of close statewide elections and two decades of Republican and even an Independence Party governor strikes at the notion of Minnesota as a safe Democratic stronghold.
Former President George W. Bush came within 3 percentage points of winning Minnesota in 2000, and just over 3 percentage points in 2004. The Senate race between DFLer Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman was decided by a little more than 300 votes, and the last two gubernatorial elections have been razor thin as well.
"I wouldn't call Minnesota a toss-up state, but it's certainly on the watch list," said Minneapolis attorney Andy Brehm, a former Coleman staffer. "People need to remember that while this is the state of Humphrey, Mondale and Franken, it's also the state of Pawlenty, Coleman and (U.S. Rep. Michele) Bachmann. It has an independent streak."
In any close election, which the 2012 presidential election is shaping up to be, an unpredictable state like Minnesota could emerge as a bellwether. A swing toward Romney late in the fall could be a signal of trouble for Obama in critical states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Walker continued introducing Romney to Minnesotans on Tuesday, framing him as a candidate who will appeal to the region's independent political spirit.
"The key to our success is the truth," Walker said. "If you retell the truth over and over and over, the truth will prevail."
Ron Paul supporters are one factor that could blow a hole in Romney's hopes to capture Minnesota.
Devotees of the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman swamped local caucuses and shoved aside Romney backers, winning a majority of delegate seats at the national convention.
Many Minnesota Paul delegates felt they have gotten rough treatment from the Romney campaign and national Republicans, who shoved their delegations to the back of the convention hall and tried to minimize their ability to create an embarrassing spectacle for Romney.
It's far from clear whether Paul supporters will unify behind Romney after the convention and demonstrate the kind of zeal necessary for him to win.
"They have treated us like protesters," said Yelena Vorobyov, a 30-year-old delegate from Apple Valley. "Right now, I cannot vote for Mitt Romney."
Democrats and Republicans agree Minnesota is not yet in the battleground territory. When Romney came to the Twin Cities a week before the GOP convention, he slipped in to attend two private high-dollar fundraisers in Lake Minnetonka, skipping the chance to mix with thousands of Minnesotans at the State Fair.
During Biden and Obama's recent visits, both had public appearances as well as fundraisers.
"I think it's fair to say the Romney campaign doesn't see it as competitive today," said Brehm, who attended the Romney fundraiser. "He has a responsibility to spend the most time in states where they feel they are competitive."
Any rightward shifting in the polls, however, could bring both campaigns into the state full bore.
"It would be an incredible change," said Jim Bendtsen, a Minnesota delegate from Ramsey. "If a Republican were to win, it would be a huge deal."