Washington – As time runs short to mount a realistic challenge to Sen. Al Franken, once an inviting GOP target, Minnesota Republicans are struggling to find a new face.

Far from lining up to take on a liberal DFL icon who won by 312 votes in 2008, much of the Republican old guard has begged off, or remains noncommittal. Anticipation of another shot at the former Saturday Night Live star, often a subject of derision at Republican rallies, has yielded to a sense of political snakebite after the 2012 Senate race.

That contest saw Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar trounce little-known state Rep. Kurt Bills, who was nominated on the strength of libertarian supporters of GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.

While Franken is hardly the political juggernaut that Klobuchar has become, the Minnesota Republican Party remains a house divided. Party insiders question whether some of their top elected officials — U.S. Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen — could get nominated for a statewide contest. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, while popular with conservative activists, would face questions about electability in a statewide contest.

"There's a battle underway quietly for control of the Republican Party structure," said former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, an influential behind-the-scenes player. "We're at a critical juncture in terms of candidate selection in the Minnesota Republican Party."

The soul-searching comes as establishment Republican figures in Washington look for ways to reverse a national dynamic that many believe pushed them into minority status in the Senate.

A "Conservative Victory Project" launched by former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove aims to counter the sort of unelectable conservatives who have garnered bad headlines in recent years. Notable among them are Nevada's Sharron Angle, a Tea Partier who assiduously avoided the press, and Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, a fringe candidate who found herself declaring that she was "not a witch."

A series of party gatherings in coming weeks will tell whether Franken — cultivating a low-profile, all-business image in the Senate — might get the same bye that many mainstream Republicans feel Klobuchar got in November.

Although Klobuchar was hardly considered vulnerable, she ran in an election cycle that saw the GOP lose Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, states that Republicans could have won but for staunchly outspoken or politically weakened candidates.

Looking ahead at 2014, Republicans put Minnesota on a short list of states — including Iowa, Alaska and West Virginia — where they have a better-than-average opportunity to pick up seats and regain a majority. But much like in Iowa, where Tea Party-aligned U.S. Rep. Steve King is considered a leading prospect, Minnesota Republicans have to worry whether they can field a candidate with appeal beyond the activist base.

The question, Weber said, is whether "we are going to continue to choose our candidates through a process dominated by a dwindling number of people ... and the demographic for that is disastrous. It's old white people."

Weber and other party rainmakers say they will only support candidates who are willing to go to a primary election — regardless of party endorsement. That, he said, would force them to court a broader array of voters than the activists who confer endorsements in party conventions.

Compounding the Minnesota GOP's dilemma is the state party's $1.5 million debt, and a recent track record of less-than-successful nominees for statewide office such as Bills and Tom Emmer, the party's losing candidate for governor in 2010.

'As weak as it's ever been'

"The endorsement is as weak as it's ever been," said GOP strategist Ben Golnik, the state party's former executive director.

For the GOP, expectations are still high for next year. Franken enters a less favorable climate, with midterm elections being historically difficult for the president's party. And while the newbie senator has dropped the in-your-face persona of his satirist days, he does not share Klobuchar's stratospheric approval ratings.

"Al Franken is many things, but he is no Amy Klobuchar," said Minnesota GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge. "He starts at a much lower base of support, and he's a much more polarizing figure. ... He certainly unites our coalition."

While a conservative coalition might eventually unite against Franken, deep divisions persist at a stage when candidates need to emerge, circulate and raise money. (At this point in 2007, Franken was a declared candidate).

"There is a big debate going on within the Republican Party, and frankly, it's probably a more important debate than the one going on between the Republicans and the Democrats," said Marianne Stebbins, a Ron Paul supporter who led Minnesota's libertarian-dominated delegation to last year's Republican National Convention.

Stebbins said she hopes to see the party's activists rally around an endorsed candidate, not necessarily a Rove-backed mainstream candidate. "Most people wish the Karl Roves of the party were gone," she said.

Tea Partiers also have pushed back against Rove's project.

"You don't want a rigid ideologue who can't get anything done, but you also don't want a chameleon who's going to change his spots all the time," said Sal Russo of the Tea Party Express, which supported Bills, as well as Angle and O'Donnell.

Russo, who has put Minnesota's Senate race "on our radar," said it seems as if Rove and his allies "want to go to war with the grass roots."

If there's a grass-roots consensus in Minnesota, one recent poll shows that it could favor Bachmann, a Tea Party stalwart. A Public Policy Polling survey in January showed her as the clear favorite among Republican primary voters, with 45 percent support, far ahead of mainstream picks such as Kline and Paulsen.

The same poll found Franken peaking above 52 percent voter approval, a much higher rating than he had during his 2009 recount victory over incumbent Republican Norm Coleman, who has sworn off a rematch. Franken, with a freshman's focus on consumer rights and helping constituents, has given ideological foes little to work with.

That, along with Franken's star-quality fundraising ability, could also dampen Republican enthusiasm, according to University of Minnesota political analyst Eric Ostermeier: "Some credit has to be given to Al Franken for gaining a positive image, … which he did not have prior to his becoming a candidate, when he was seen as much more of a partisan and a flamethrower."

Some analysts believe Bachmann could walk away with the GOP nomination, setting up a titanic Bachmann-Franken duel.

But hardly anyone sees her as a strong general-election contender. Politically sapped after her 2012 presidential bid, Bachmann has said nothing about a potential Senate run.

Kline and Paulsen also have demurred. With their stars rising in Congress, few party insiders consider either of them likely to risk a Senate run next year.

If there's a GOP candidate who can break the intraparty impasse, some are now looking to the business community, possibly an entirely new face in politics.

"Voters are frustrated with politicians and with Washington," Shortridge said. "They're not looking for the same old political faces. ... They're looking for people outside of the traditional political sphere."

Kevin Diaz • kdiaz@startribune.com