On a day when Hurricane Sandy put the presidential campaign on hold for most of the country, Minnesota caught more political action than it has seen this entire election cycle.

Former President Bill Clinton, a chief Obama surrogate, whipped a crowd of 1,800 students and supporters into a cheering frenzy at the University of Minnesota on Tuesday morning.

In a nod to how tight the race has become here, before Clinton had even taken the stage the Romney campaign announced that vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan also would be passing through Minnesota.

After a brief airport photo opportunity and a Hudson, Wis., appearance where he thanked campaign volunteers for collecting donations for storm victims, Ryan made an unannounced dinner stop at O'Gara's at Snelling and Selby avenues in St. Paul.

Wearing a sharp red Wisconsin jacket, Ryan ordered a dark tap beer, posed for photos and shook hands with patrons while eating at the longtime Republican watering hole. One of the first people Ryan shook hands with at the bar was Tom Steward, who served as communications director for former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.

In search of enthusiasm

Although Ryan didn't make any public comments at either of his Minnesota stops, Clinton found an enthusiastic crowd in the Twin Cities before heading to Duluth.

"I have worked very hard in this election, and I'm not running for anything," Clinton joked. "And understanding what [Mitt] Romney and Mr. Ryan say, I am more enthusiastic about President Barack Obama than when I campaigned for him four years ago."

A week away from Election Day, enthusiasm is what both campaigns sorely need from ad-numbed voters, distracted by the catastrophe unfolding on the East Coast.

"I think it helped," said Deb Bowling, of the Clinton event.

A Democrat from St. Louis Park who volunteers on state legislative campaigns, Bowling arrived early to snag a spot near the stage -- but not as early as the students who staked out a spot at the auditorium door at 6:30 a.m. "That's the whole purpose," Bowling said. "To get people excited about who they are and what they believe in ... I'm just so excited about next week."

The latest Star Tribune Minnesota Poll shows Obama with a 3 percentage-point lead over Romney. On Tuesday, each campaign painted the other side's last-minute foray into the state as a sign that they're worried about Election Day.

Michael Levoff, Minnesota spokesman for the Romney campaign, said in a statement that, "President Obama is playing defense in traditionally Democratic states like Minnesota and Pennsylvania," adding that "On November 6, voters across the country will choose [Romney's] positive agenda over President Obama's increasingly desperate attacks."

Kristin Sosanie, spokeswoman for the Obama campaign in Minnesota, said the Romney camp is the one that seems to be on the defensive.

"The Romney campaign has found itself with a tremendously narrow and improbable path to 270 electoral votes so they are desperately trying to find a path through states like Minnesota. But the problem is, it doesn't exist."

The Clinton rally -- which included DFL headliners Gov. Mark Dayton, former Vice President Walter Mondale, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum -- gave the former president a chance to take a roundhouse swing at Romney.

"Despite his 11th-hour conversion to moderate rhetoric in the debates, Gov. Romney has not changed his position on the fundamental issues or his fundamental argument against the president: 'We left him a terrible mess, he didn't fix it all. Fire him and put us back in,' " Clinton said.

Those 12 million jobs Romney promised? Clinton said the economy is on track to create them under Obama's current policies.

"The governor has also said that the job creators in America -- he loves that phrase -- will be so ecstatic when he becomes president, that they will bestow 12 million jobs on us in the next four years. See me about the details after the election," Clinton said, as the crowd laughed. "In other words, the argument is, throw this guy out so I can get credit for the 12 million jobs that his policies made possible."

Obama, he told the crowd, is the candidate who can create "a more perfect Union."

In Duluth, Clinton praised congressional Democratic challenger Rick Nolan, who is attempting to unseat GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049 Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035