Step right up, caucus lovers. Plenty of seats, ample parking, no waiting.

Tuesday's statewide political sorting summit likely won't draw the big crowds that created chaos at the 2008 gathering.

"Nobody's going to be there," said Democratic pundit Blois Olson. Unlike two years ago, there's no presidential race or Senate race in the offing and no celebrities on the ballot.

But know this: The lighter expected attendance won't lessen the weight of the night. Those who show up at the DFL and GOP caucuses will get a powerful first shot at deciding Minnesota's future.

"You can have much more influence than one vote in a primary or general election," said Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton.

Caucusgoers who become delegates to statewide party conventions in April will get to winnow the now expansive field of gubernatorial candidates from nearly two dozen to just a handful.

Show up at your neighborhood caucus on Tuesday night and you'll also get to vote in a nonbinding straw poll that will give the public their first serious look at how fellow Minnesotans size up the gubernatorial contenders.

"The governor's race is the focus," said state Rep. Marty Seifert, one of seven Republicans vying for the state's top job.

In their mad dash toward caucus night, the candidates have logged thousands of road miles, spent cash on mailings and competed for insiders' endorsements. Seifert and Democrat Matt Entenza have even cut radio ads. Democrat Tom Rukavina dropped a grand on a cable television spot to get his folks out. Candidates have snipped at rivals and reacted quickly to their bashers.

But mostly, they've talked to any of the crucial activists with a moment to hear from the person who may be the state's next governor.

Dialing for delegates

One of those being wooed on the Democratic side is Daniel Olson, a 27-year-old accountant by day who will get a turn at playing political heavy-hitter for one night.

"Lately, I've been getting a call once or twice a week," said Olson.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a DFL gubernatorial candidate, said her conversations with potential delegates can last half an hour or more.

"People give me ideas, they tell me what their concerns are, they tell me what their dreams are for the state," said Kelliher.

Sometimes, the calls are quick.

That was the case for Garrett Peterson, a volunteer for Democrat R.T. Rybak. Peterson punched numbers into a cell phone in a noisy high school cafeteria at a recent weekend gathering of young DFLers, at the rate of 18 calls in about 20 minutes.

"It's really early in the race so it's hard to get people who have made up their minds," said the grad student.

Minnesota's different

The grass-roots, person-to-person campaigning for caucuses makes Minnesota politics different. The state is one of the last to have a powerful caucus system, in which groups of neighbors get a first cut of candidates and can force issues -- from international policy to organic farming -- to the fore.

The results are loved and loathed. Backers say caucuses empower regular people, reward lesser known candidates who work hard, and provide political parties with a direct link to voters. Detractors say the gatherings are outdated and give activists, who tend to be more extreme than most Minnesotans, too much control.

Two years ago, after the chaos of record-breaking caucus attendance, some lawmakers and voters loudly called for an end to the caucuses' power. But populism, tradition -- and inertia -- prevailed and the caucuses live on.

The caucus process, culminating in party endorsement, could confer an enviable advantage on the Republican candidate for governor. So far, all the major GOP contenders have promised to drop out of the race if they fail to get endorsed.

No such luck for DFL candidates. Four of the 13 have already pledged to run in a primary regardless of what delegates decide in April.

But for most of the candidates, caucus night may mark a pivotal point.

What to expect Tuesday

Folks who turn out for caucuses Tuesday shouldn't expect to hear others pledging their allegiance to one candidate or another, said Justin Countryman, a Republican caucus trainer and potential delegate. He expects to hear more speeches about: "What are your values? What are your principles? Do you represent this area?"

Over at the Independence Party, most of the speeches will be made to the sound of a keyboard clacking. The small third party, which has five gubernatorial candidates, is offering up online as well as physical caucuses.

Just as caucus night ends for the GOP and DFL, the Independence Party will open up a Web forum to allow their party faithful to discuss candidates, policy positions and vote in a straw poll, all online.

"The biggest complaint that we hear from people is 'I just can't make it that night,'" said the Independence Party's Jim Moore, who has helped coordinate the party's online caucus.

The online caucus negates that, he said: "If the time that works for them is 3 in the morning in their pajamas, God bless them."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164