Ron Paul, looking for edge in Minnesota, draws crowds

The GOP presidential hopeful galvanized supporters during three Minnesota stops.

Hoping to ride on the shoulders of passionate supporters in Tuesday's caucuses, GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul packed Minnesota events Saturday, speaking of liberty over government and rights over entitlement.

"We don't need more government," Paul told a standing-room-only crowd in a Rochester high school. "The American people are waking up."

Paul may have some reason to find optimism in Minnesota. His campaign has been organizing for the caucuses for months and claims to have the structure to, as one supporter said, "storm the caucuses."

With a still-unsettled electorate and no Minnesotans left in the race, the state's Tuesday straw poll is gaining attention from the remaining Republican candidates as they look for momentum to fight on. Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum supporters are now streaming TV ads in Minnesota, and they and Newt Gingrich backers are dialing for votes among GOP activists.

Paul's on-the-ground campaigning Saturday and Monday will be matched by Santorum and Romney, who also visited the state last week. Santorum is back Sunday for a prayer service in Eden Prairie, a rally and visit to the factory that makes his sweater vests in Bemidji, and a "Super Santorum Sunday" Party in Waconia. Romney will return on Monday, and Gingrich, who has the most recently organized Minnesota campaign, will stop in the state for the first time on Monday for an evening rally in St. Paul.

With few polls among caucus-goers and a non-binding vote on Tuesday, even longtime pols are left guessing about how it will play out.

"There is no way to predict a straw poll," said Republican National Committeeman Jeff Johnson, a Gingrich fan.

Gingrich had a large but tenuous lead in one poll, from Public Policy Polling, but those numbers showed a lot of potential movement. In 2008, Romney swept the Minnesota caucuses, but it is not clear if his support will hold if other candidates are seen as more conservative.

So far, Paul has not won any of the early states, although he came in a close third in Iowa.

In Minnesota, Paul's hopes rest not just on passion -- he garnered hundreds of hooting supporters in Rochester and Chanhassen Saturday and filled a 1,500-seat hall at Bethel University in the evening -- but on organization.

His supporters have been working the state since the end of the last election, gathering steam for the caucuses. At his Saturday events, volunteers got contact information from the many willing to sign in and, in Rochester and Arden Hills, supporters practiced caucusing in advance of Tuesday. In a low-turnout caucus, that could give Paul the edge.

"We are feeling super good about this coming Tuesday," said Marianne Stebbins, Paul's Minnesota director.

The 12-term Texas congressman was the first to visit the state last year, turning out nearly 3,000 people at a St. Cloud rally. He has capitalized on voters' unease by promising a radical turn not just from President Obama but from the path of the past 100 years.

"Our problems are a lot longer than three years old," he said.

At rallies Saturday, Paul rarely mentioned Obama and did not use the names of any of his GOP rivals. He promised to cut $1 trillion from federal spending, repeal the Patriot Act and refocus government on liberty, not entitlements.

"Our liberties are still under attack," Paul said.

That cry holds some sway with Tea Party folks. "He was Tea Party before it was cool," said Walter Hudson, of the North Star Tea Party Patriots.

Paul's coolness won him about 16 percent of the caucus vote in 2008. He did best in urban areas and will hold a large rally on Monday night at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

"If you had asked me five years ago: 'Would Minnesota be one of the key states that would have been most receptive?' I didn't know enough about the state to say, yes ... I am delighted to learn that they are very excited about the message," Paul told reporters.

He also has found new supporters, including 15-year-old Devin Alexander, of Rochester. The high school student paused Saturday from buying a Ron Paul T-shirt to explain that he was introduced to the 76-year-old candidate on YouTube and found common sense.

"The debt is going on my generation's shoulders," he said.

While Devin can't vote on Tuesday, his parents can. After the son introduced the parents to Paul via the Internet, they not only attended Saturday's rally in Rochester, they're also planning to caucus for Paul on Tuesday.

On Saturday, Paul had a message for supporters like the Alexanders.

"Welcome to the revolution!" he said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb

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