Politics 2012: Minnesota provides glimpse of activists' preferences

By NICOLE DEBEVEC  |  Feb. 5, 2012 at 4:31 AM
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ST. PAUL, Minn., Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum view Minnesota as a chance of slowing front-runner Mitt Romney's momentum.

Romney won the 2008 party caucuses when about 62,800 people participated. State party leaders say they expect about the same turnout Tuesday. There is no registration by party in the state and anyone can participate in precinct caucuses as long they reach their 18th birthday by Election Day.

Nationally, RealClearPolitics.com indicated Gingrich had a 2.5-percentage point edge over Romney as of Wednesday. That same day, however, Gallup indicated Romney was ahead of Gingrich by a 5-percentage point margin.

But Republican caucus-goers tend to be dominated by small-government social conservatives who are knowledgeable about the presidential race while giving a nod that their votes won't necessarily yield any delegates for their favorite candidate -- which could spell trouble for Romney.

"The Minnesota GOP caucuses tend to be dominated by strong conservatives, so it is quite possible that Gingrich or Santorum could upset Romney in Minnesota," said political commentator Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota.

"Minnesota is perhaps the best place for a candidate other than Romney to 'steal a win' because strong conservatives dominate the caucuses and Romney so far has shown less appeal among strongly conservative Republicans," Schier said.

When Romney won four years ago, he was considered the conservative alternative to eventual party presidential nominee John McCain, Schier said.

One thing Romney has going for him is having former Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- himself a presidential hopeful until his distant third-place finish in the Iowa straw poll last summer -- on staff.

Pawlenty, in telephone conference call last week, tried to downplay the importance of the caucuses, The Hill reported.

"It's important, but it's a smaller turnout than a primary system and it's difficult to predict," Pawlenty said, noting the results are non-binding.

In states with non-binding caucuses, delegate apportionment will be determined at district and state conventions during the spring and summer although media outlets sometimes provide unofficial distributions.

During the same conference call, Pawlenty stressed the state was "important as a momentum indicator" but repeatedly said only 60,000 to 80,000 of the state's 3 million voters usually attend.

Polls indicate Minnesota as one of the only states in February where Romney's opponents could pull off a win this month, The Hill said, a fact Pawlenty addressed.

"In this next batch of states that's coming up he's going to do very well," the former governor said. "He looks like the candidate who has the momentum toward the nomination."

It's a question of timing, though, Schier said.

"The Minnesota caucus results, like the Iowa caucus results, decide no national convention delegates," he said. "But Minnesota's timing, like Iowa's, make its caucus results important because they are an early indicator of party activists' preferences."

But if Romney was hoping to secure the endorsement of a second Minnesotan who dropped out of the running, he was sorely disappointed.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who suspended her campaign after a dismal finish in the Iowa caucuses, denied speculation she was prepared to endorse Romney, The Hill said.

"Let me be absolutely clear -- there are absolutely no negotiations between me and the Romney campaign regarding any pending endorsement of Governor Romney," Bachmann said in a statement Wednesday. "I continue to speak with all the candidates and plan on uniting behind the presumptive nominee."

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