After a tumultuous year, Minnesota Republicans will gather in St. Cloud on Friday to bind their wounds, endorse a U.S. Senate candidate and hope that the internal fights that have been gnawing at the party for months don't spill out into an ugly convention battle.

"Just like Thanksgiving dinner with the family, it will end with hugs and smiles or people ... wondering who threw the turkey at Uncle Bob," said Jennifer DeJournett, a Republican activist and president of VOICES of Conservative Women.

The Minnesota Republican Party is teetering on the same edge of chaos that sparked a fist fight at an Oklahoma party convention and jeers at an Arizona gathering addressed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney's son. That last incident moved national Republicans to create an organization to bypass the Nevada GOP.

Underlying the tensions is libertarian-minded presidential candidate Ron Paul, whose followers are fighting for dominance of the party that bypassed their hero for the more mainstream Romney.

Paul supporters have already flexed their might in the state's Republican Party. They claim 20 of the 24 national delegates already selected at local Republican gatherings. They ousted a GOP insider from the party's ruling body and thwarted some sitting lawmakers' attempts at party positions.

While Paul has suspended his presidential bid, he's made clear that his fight in the party is far from over and that the next front is in Minnesota. The 12-term Texas congressman will address the convention Friday night. It's a privilege he was denied four years ago and supporters have stewed about the slight ever since.

"Starting with the Minnesota State Convention this weekend, our movement has an opportunity to secure more delegates, take control of more local and state parties ... to achieve lasting victory in the years to come," said John Tate, Paul's campaign manager.

A few nervous Republicans

That promise to "take control" is making some longtime Republicans queasy. Republicans who have labored in the party trenches for years consider the Paul supporters upstarts who refuse to see the difference between Democratic President Obama and Romney.

"The hideous Ron Paul invasion of the Minnesota Republican Party is not quite over ... but enough evidence is in hand to draw some grim conclusions for those who are not enamored of a ... fringe cult political figure who speaks to alienated, fairly ignorant and frequently unwashed lost souls," said longtime Republican activist John Gilmore on his blog this week.

Gilmore said he has no doubt that Paul's support will overflow during this year's Republican state convention.

On Saturday, state delegates are scheduled to select delegates to the party's national convention in August in Tampa, Fla.

Behind the scenes, party officials have worked frantically to keep the antipathy between the pro-Romney folks and Paul supporters at bay during the two-day state convention.

State Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said he hopes that in exchange for Paul being welcomed, his supporters will allow the convention to proceed without conflict.

"Everybody is happy as far as I can tell," said Shortridge, who was picked as a state delegate by the Paul-friendly "Liberty Caucus."

Paul will be allowed to speak at the convention only after delegates finish endorsing a U.S. Senate candidate, but his voice may be heard even before he appears. In the three-way Senate contest, Paul and many of his Minnesota supporters are backing the bid of first-term state Rep. Kurt Bills.

A high school economics teacher, Bills espouses many of the same principles as Paul, including his monetary policies.

"Stealing the purchasing power of working class people by printing money keeps interest rates low and encourages people to go further into debt rather than save," Bills said in a position paper. At the State Capitol, Bills introduced a measure to allow gold and silver as legal tender in Minnesota.

Bills will start the day with a significant lead, but rivals Dan Severson and Pete Hegseth come in with strengths of their own.

Severson, a former four-term lawmaker, has been running the longest and -- with a loss in a bid for secretary of state last year -- has more political experience than the others. Severson, a retired Navy fighter pilot, has pitched himself with references to the movie "Top Gun."

Hegseth has never run for elected office, but as a veteran of the Afghan war, he's stumped across the country for GOP veterans and has the backing of some national Republicans along with former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.

Frequent candidates Harold Shudlick and Bob Carney will also be in contention.

The three major candidates have pledged to drop out should they fail to get endorsed. None has anything close to the might of Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is running for a second term. One of the most popular senators in the country, Klobuchar has more than $5 million already socked away.

The three Republicans combined have reported just a little more than $200,000 in the bank, according to the most recent reporting numbers. They can expect little help from a party still awash in debt and which narrowly avoided eviction for nonpayment of rent.

Still, Republicans remain hopeful that their pick will be ready to surf into office should a GOP wave crash on Democrats in November.

"I think it is going to be a fascinating day," said Bills campaign manager Mike Osskopp.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb