WASHINGTON - Something strange happened this week on the way to the presidential election. Suddenly, campaign ads are coming to Minnesota airwaves.
This was not expected -- unless the race got close. ("Chicago, we've got a problem?")
Until now, the presidential contest in Minnesota had been noted for its absence. The state hasn't gone to a Republican since Richard Nixon in 1972. Rick Santorum won the 2012 GOP caucuses here, and most of the state's delegates to the GOP convention voted for Ron Paul. Since then, the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan seemed interested in coming to the Twin Cities only for private fundraisers, not public events.
While President Obama seemed comfortably ahead in the polls in the state, his campaign mounted the only credible ground operation here, led by longtime DFL strategist Jeff Blodgett.
But on Friday, the Romney campaign confirmed it has bought ads in the Twin Cities media market, albeit a token $13,000 buy that could just as well be aimed at voters in western Wisconsin, where a presidential race is definitely on.
Or it could be a head fake to garner free media (like this) and make Obama spend money here. (He is.)
But Minnesota always seems to be the launchpad, not the target.
An Obama campaign official confirmed Friday that his campaign is going up with a "very small" ad buy that actually is targeted at Wisconsin. The Twin Cities media market covers something like 5 percent of the Badger State.
The Obama campaign also has had ads in Minnesota as part of a national cable buy, as well as in Rochester to target Iowa. There were also radio spots in Duluth to reach Superior and environs.
All the while, neither camp was talking strategy on the record, all the better to keep each other guessing.
But there's no question that the Romney ad buy on KSTP comes at a time when Republicans are feeling a little breeze at their backs, if not in Minnesota, certainly nationally, where the field is widening for the GOP to reach 270 electoral votes.
A certain sign of that comes in Sunday's Minnesota Poll, which shows Obama 3 points up, but still within the poll's 3.5 percentage-point margin of error. Obama campaign staffers in Minnesota have said all along that they were taking nothing for granted, and the latest numbers would indicate that they were not kidding.
Meanwhile Minnesota Republicans, being realistic, and usually off the record, have been saying all along that while Minnesota's 10 electoral votes were not in play, they reserved the right to contest for them at a later date, if the race tightened. And if that were the case, we'd start to see ads. And maybe even the candidates.
Some point to 2000, when George W. Bush finished within 2 percentage points of Al Gore, who won Minnesota by a sweat-inducing 48-46, a lot closer than Obama's 54-44 margin in 2008.
There's still time, but both sides agree that for Obama, Minnesota is a must-win state.