When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was campaigning for the Republican nomination, he frequently joked about hailing from the state that elected liberal icons such as Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey -- and here comes the punch line -- Al Franken, the comic-turned-senator.
But running alongside the state’s progressive streak is a conservative insurgency that is personified by Pawlenty’s one-time rival for the White House, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and that helped the GOP in 2010 take over both chambers of the Minnesota legislature for the first time in nearly four decades.
The heavy influence of the conservative and tea party movements make Minnesota’s caucus on Tuesday one of Newt Gingrich’s best and possibly only hope for an outright win in the month of February, which mostly features contests in states favoring Mitt Romney. Gingrich allies point to exit polls in Florida, where he lost badly to Romney but siphoned support from the most conservative voters, the strongest tea party supporters and voters who consider abortion the most important issue.
Still, Romney is riding momentum from winning Florida and Saturday’s caucus in Nevada as well as endorsements from two prominent Minnesota Republicans, Pawlenty and former Sen. Norm Coleman, while Rep. Ron Paul boasts a well-organized campaign and has visited the state consistently. These intangibles, along with a low turnout -- less than 63,000 voters participated in the 2008 Republican caucus – make the results hard to predict.
“I think we are likely to see all four candidates relatively close together,’’ said Brian McClung, a former top aide to Pawlenty who is supporting Romney. “I don’t think anyone is likely to have a breakout victory. I’d call it a tossup.’’
Romney won here with 41 percent of the vote in 2008. The Minnesota caucus is nothing more than a straw poll, because delegates are officially chosen at party conventions in April and May. But a Gingrich victory would have symbolic importance by demonstrating that his victory in South Carolina was not a fluke and that the former Georgia congressman can win outside the south. Still, Gingrich allies insist doesn’t need to come in first in a contest in order to campaign through Super Tuesday on March 6 and beyond.
“Minnesota is one of those symbolically important states, because at this point people are looking for signals as to how long this race will go on,’’ said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “This is not necessarily friendly territory for Romney. It’s a place Paul or Gingrich could do well, but Paul has a much bigger presence here and could be the big surprise.’’
Gingrich could be hamstrung by his lack of campaign organization in Minnesota and competition from Rick Santorum, who is courting the same conservative voters. A super PAC backed by Santorum allies called the Red White and Blue Fund is airing a television ad in Minnesota that lumps Gingrich and Romney with President Obama and calls Santorum “the only proven conservative.’’
“Having two conservatives in the race does split the vote and provides an advantage for Gov. Romney,’’ said Robert Walker, a Washington lobbyist advising Gingrich. “That’s a concern for the party going forward.’’
Santorum campaigned in Minnesota on Sunday for the second time in a week, while Paul and Gingrich were scheduled to visit on Monday, the day before the caucus. Colorado and Missouri also vote Tuesday.