The Minnesota Republican Party opens its state convention in Rochester today awash in mixed feelings. Its top official up for reelection, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, is touting a message of independence and bipartisanship, while its star speaker this weekend is the architect of play-to-the base, Bush-brand Republicanism -- strategist-turned-political commentator Karl Rove.

The dichotomy neatly illustrates the party's struggle over the next five months, as it tries to steer Coleman to victory, reclaim congressional seats and, if possible, increase its paltry numbers in the Minnesota House.

Are Republicans the party of President Bush? Are they the party of small government, low taxes and personal accountability? How does small government take charge of a flagging economy, an unpopular war, spiraling food and fuel prices, a dive-bombing housing market?

"Republicans need to look in the mirror closely," said former state party chairman Chris Georgacas. "They've been losing their voice. There's still time for Republican candidates to go through the necessary exercise of re-examining what they stand for, but it has to happen very soon."

One of the biggest advocates for re-framing the Republican message has been Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a rising GOP star who reportedly is on the short list of potential running mates for presumptive presidential nominee John McCain. Should that happen, it could put one of the state party's highest-wattage figures on the trail out of state for much of a bruising election cycle.

Sullivan is hopeful

Brian Sullivan, a businessman and national GOP committeeman, said that the days and months ahead will be difficult but that those who sell the Republican brand short may be surprised.

Originally a staunch supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential bid, Sullivan said that while McCain may not be what many Republicans wanted, he's what they need.

"Part of what's aggravated conservatives is his willingness to reach across the aisle," Sullivan said. But that very trait, he said, is what has positioned him against Democrats intent on running against Bush a third time.

What Sullivan's really counting on to energize Republicans is the opposition. While Republicans may have their differences, he said, the prospect of a President Barack Obama and a U.S. Sen. Al Franken "is incredibly motivating. When that sinks in, there's no way they [Republicans] can afford to sit at home. Our big challenge is to make sure our people are energized."

And that is no small task.

Enter Coburn and Rove

To fire up the faithful, Republican state party Chairman Ron Carey has brought in the GOP's most reliable guns. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the party's fieriest and most conservative stalwarts, kicked off the doings on Thursday night at a pre-convention rally. Coburn is among those who think Republicans lost their way and must return to a path of less government, tighter purse strings and social conservatism.

Closing out the convention will be Rove, who may be Darth Vader to Democrats, but "he's a rock star to us," said Carey. Even after his departure from the White House, Rove has loomed large for Republicans like Carey, who tune in nightly to Fox News to hear dispensed wisdom from the ultimate insider.

"We don't want our people to leave on a down note," Carey said. "Karl Rove is someone who can really fire them up."

David Gaither, former chief of staff to Pawlenty, said that Rove's speech may be ear candy to Republicans, but it doesn't solve the lack of a cohesive message.

"We did it to ourselves," said a glum Gaither, who is skipping the weekend festivities. "Republicans had everything they needed at the national level to enact change and they blew it. What we got was bigger government, more spending and a lot of disappointment."

The lack of a firm brand, he said, has resulted in a sort of "every man for himself" atmosphere that Gaither fears may alienate party loyalists without attracting independents and moderates.

Coleman has already set out to configure a message that plays to his strengths -- working with the other side -- while downplaying his Bush connections.

Touting a law enforcement endorsement on Thursday, Coleman highlighted his work on a collective bargaining act for law enforcement and his long history with Minnesotans, accrued over 15 years of public service.

Politics, he said, "is about relationships."

Running on name, not brand

Carey said the key for Republicans will be in running as individuals instead of allowing themselves to be wrist-bound to an outgoing president. "A lot of what happened in '06 was people saying 'I'm mad at Republicans, I'm going to vote Democratic,'" Carey said. "If we make it a choice between individuals, we can do surprisingly well."

Minnesota House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, has taken that counsel to heart, recruiting candidates not from party insiders, but from "whoever the local talent is."

Fearless in his optimism, Seifert remains convinced that at least lower on the ballot, Republican candidates can doorknock and handshake their way out of any fatal connection with the outgoing administration.

While national Republicans struggle, he said, state House Republicans are ahead in fundraising, recruitment and carrying an anti-tax message that he says still resonates in Minnesota.

"I don't know what's going to happen at the federal level," he said, "but in Minnesota Democrats overreached on taxes this year and we're going to prove it. Let Democrats laugh. I'm happy to let them laugh. As the grasshoppers laugh, the ants will be busy rebuilding their majority. I've met a lot of DFL grasshoppers."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288