This journalist’s quadrennial case of Iowa envy is milder than usual this pre-presidential year, thanks in part to the Republican National Committee. More than in any year since the heyday of Harold Stassen, Minnesota voices might matter in the selection of the 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

Why? Consider the calendar and a change in GOP rules. Minnesota’s precinct caucuses are set for March 1 — Super Tuesday. Voters in 12 other states also will stage caucuses or primaries that day. It falls just one month after Iowa caucusgoers begin the serious winnowing of what’s now a 16-person Republican field. Chances are better than usual this year that when Minnesotans troop to their neighborhood political gathering spots on a chilly late-winter’s night, a genuine contest will still be in progress — maybe in both major parties.

Republicans will have the added incentive of knowing that the votes they cast at caucuses have consequences. The RNC decreed in May that ballots cast at Minnesota’s Republican caucuses will be binding on the state’s allocation of national convention delegates. No more will the GOP allow post-caucus courtship rituals among candidates and party insiders to determine whom Minnesota’s national convention delegates will support.

A similar relevance rule is already in play on the Democratic side — though, as is that party’s wont, it’s complicated. The presidential loyalties of 50 of Minnesota’s 93 Democratic National Convention delegates will be determined by the preference ballot cast on caucus night.

OK, we’re still not Des Moines. But my forecast for the next few months calls for an increase in presidential campaign traffic amid a growing sense that even in Minnesota, early-stage presidential politics can be more than a spectator sport.

Just last week, Minnesota was scheduled to host two GOP hopefuls at the same time on the same day — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the Minikahda Club and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at the Minneapolis Club, both at noon Thursday. The Rubio visit didn’t happen. The Senate’s impending vote on the Iran nuclear agreement kept Rubio in Washington.

My Iowa envy spiked a bit when I noted that neither candidate’s Minnesota itinerary reflected any awareness that this state’s precinct caucus straw ballot will matter next year. Christie came trolling for dollars, not votes or quotes, and Rubio had intended to do the same. Journalists were not welcome at either candidate’s confab.

But Rubio’s state chairman, Jeff Johnson — last year’s GOP gubernatorial candidate — assures that Florida’s junior senator will reschedule his Minnesota visit, and that he will urge the campaign to spend some quality time with Average Joe and Joan caucusgoers when he does.

Rubio would do well to heed Johnson’s counsel. Johnson’s performance on the state political stage last year, his grace in defeat and his diligence on the Hennepin County Board since then qualify him as a refreshingly Average Joe among Minnesota politicians. He’s an even-tempered, even-keel guy around whom a fractious Republican Party found it could rally, both at its endorsing convention and in a hard-fought four-way primary. He lost to a popular DFL governor in November, but he won considerable respect.

Johnson, who has announced that he will seek a third and final term as a Hennepin County commissioner next year, would have been a prize catch for any of the candidates in the GOP prez pack. He could have opted for neutrality, as a number of prominent Minnesota Republicans have. He said he considered backing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — perhaps out of a sense of regional solidarity. He rejected the current national front-runner, real estate mogul/reality show celebrity Donald Trump, because “he’s not conservative.”

In the end, Johnson said, he didn’t just “settle” on Rubio. He became an enthusiastic supporter. That may be because the 48-year-old Norwegian Lutheran from Detroit Lakes sees a little of himself in the 44-year-old son of Cuban immigrants.

“Rubio seems to appeal to almost everyone, but in many cases as a second choice — which is very reminiscent of my campaign” in 2014, Johnson said with a laugh. “I see in him a lot of what I wanted to be as a candidate. He’s better at it than I am. But he’s someone who’s able to always have a positive message, somebody who is able to inspire people but not shy away from an issue, even if it might hurt him. … He can make a conservative message relevant to average people.”

He said he was impressed when he learned that when Rubio speaks at an event, the wait staff often pauses to listen.

If Johnson’s assessment of his candidate is correct, Rubio stands to gain if and when the GOP’s Summer of ’15 fling with Trump fades. He’ll get a second look in Minnesota in part because Johnson recommends him.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.