The 10 leading Republican presidential candidates meet in Cleveland this Thursday for the first debate of the 2016 campaign, and many Minnesota conservatives with plans to tune in are still undecided in the wide-open and unpredictable GOP race.
Dozens of the uncommitted will gather at O'Gara's in St. Paul for a debate-watching party sponsored by the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, an influential Republican group. Sponsor Fox News is actually broadcasting two separate debates — a prime-time affair for the 10 candidates doing best in the polls as of Tuesday, and a forum that afternoon with as many as seven less viable candidates.
On the main stage will be former Florida Gov. and fundraising powerhouse Jeb Bush; up-and-comers like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; two other U.S. senators competing for the constitutional conservative vote — Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas — and spotlight hog Donald Trump. Retired surgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are expected to meet the threshold, while former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are vying for the 10th slot.
"There's something to be said for a hypercompetitive primary process, because I think it makes the candidates and campaigns better," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2012 who believes the party's 2016 nominee will be either Walker, Bush or Rubio.
Pawlenty told the Star Tribune he might still endorse one of those three.
The Minnesota presidential caucus is March 1, earlier than previous years. Minnesota is one of 12 "Super Tuesday" states in 2016, which immediately follows the first four contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Thanks to new Republican National Committee rules, presidential delegates will be permanently awarded on caucus night rather than at the subsequent state convention, giving candidates a bigger incentive to compete in Minnesota.
"It's exciting for Minnesota Republicans," said state Sen. Branden Petersen, who's helping Rand Paul organize here. "We've never been in this situation before, where we're relevant."
Like Pawlenty, the state's three GOP congressmen — John Kline, Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer — all are uncommitted. Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt hasn't settled yet, but is leaning toward Walker or Rubio. State GOP Chairman Keith Downey is staying neutral, unlike his DFL counterpart Ken Martin, who is raising money for Hillary Clinton.
Other Minnesota Republicans have made their picks. Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman is supporting the long-shot candidacy of a former colleague, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Former congressman Vin Weber, an influential and well-connected lobbyist, has endorsed Bush. Last year's Republican candidate for governor, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, is chairing Rubio's campaign in Minnesota. Former Minnesota Speaker Kurt Zellers backs Walker, while another '14 gubernatorial candidate, businessman and GOP donor Scott Honour, likes Christie.
"In my view, Bush is the candidate best positioned to win for the Republicans and govern for the country," Weber said.
Minnesota communications mogul Stanley Hubbard, a frequent political donor, maxed out personal contribution limits to Walker.
"In Wisconsin, he's shown the ability to get it done," Hubbard said of Walker. "The unions spent a ton of money to get rid of him, twice, and he still won."
Rubio fans cite the relative youth of the 44-year-old senator, his skills as a communicator, and compelling personal story as the son of Cuban immigrants. "I would say his message will really resonate with a lot of people who maybe don't normally look at Republicans on Election Day," Johnson said.
Several candidates already are making organizational moves in anticipation of Minnesota's caucus, including Paul, Walker and Rubio. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won Minnesota's Republican presidential caucus in 2012, will try for a repeat.
Paul is heir to the movement spawned by his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, who mounted libertarian-flavored presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. These self-identified "liberty" activists amassed influence among Minnesota's Republican base. Rand Paul's campaign already has an organizer working in Minnesota, and Petersen said they hoped for a State Fair visit by the candidate.
Walker looks to Minnesota
As a neighboring state governor, Walker is leaning on Minnesota connections. One of his chief fundraisers, Jeanette Purcell, is a Minnesotan who raised money for Johnson's gubernatorial campaign and several GOP congressional campaigns here. Dozens of Minnesota Republicans volunteered for Walker in 2012 when he beat a recall.
"I think it's fair to say it would take a pretty strong appeal by anyone to get me to change my mind and not support Gov. Walker," said state Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville.
Santorum won the last Minnesota caucus with a socially conservative message geared to working-class voters.
"Conservatives are looking at the ages of the Supreme Court justices and asking, who are we going to trust to put people on the bench? My faith is behind Rick Santorum" said Andy Parrish, a GOP operative with deep ties to religious conservatives.
Along with either Perry or Kasich, Santorum is unlikely to make the cut for Thursday's prime-time debate. Rounding out the second-stringers are Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and Graham, the South Carolina senator.
Politico reported in June that former Sen. Coleman is co-chair of a Graham-backing super PAC called "Security is Strength." Coleman declined an interview request for this story.
Then there's Trump. The celebrity tycoon's recent success in polls ensures him a spot on the main stage. Of more than a dozen Minnesota Republicans interviewed for this story, none could produce the name of a single person in Minnesota currently supporting Trump.
Most assume he'll flame out sooner or later. But Pawlenty cautioned Republicans not to ignore what Trump represents.
"Minnesotans like populists, right or left," Pawlenty said. "A lot of people might not agree with Donald Trump's positions, but they like the fact he speaks his mind. So you've got a multibillionaire as the populist in the race."