Voters Gear Up For Minnesota Caucuses

fromMPR

Minnesota holds its Republican caucuses on Tuesday. But in the race for the White House, these caucuses are just a nonbinding straw poll.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Super Bowl of political contests is the presidential campaign. And if 2012 is not compelling enough for you, not to worry. Journalists are already writing about the prospects for 2016. But this year's Republican nominating contest is far from over. Tomorrow, Missouri which holds a primary, and there's a caucus in Minnesota, which is where we find Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio.

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: A company in northern Minnesota provided a tailor-made campaign stop for Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator visited Bemidji Woolen Mills, the official maker of - you guessed it - his signature sweater vests. The company is filling orders for several thousand vests. But since it was Sunday, this was just a photo op. At a rally later, Santorum, who squeaked to a win last month in Iowa, urged social conservatives to support him Tuesday, here in Minnesota.

RICK SANTORUM: You have an opportunity to speak loudly about the values of faith and family, of life, and the respect for the dignity of all human life.

SEPIC: That message resonated with supporter Janet Duncanson.

JANET DUNCANSON: I believe he is absolutely right when he says our country is on the line in this election. We will lose a lot of our freedoms if we continue to go the way we are.

SEPIC: However, all Santorum and his three GOP opponents can hope for in Minnesota is a symbolic victory. In the race for the White House, these caucuses are just a non-binding straw poll. Fewer than 3 percent of the state's registered voters are expected to show up. Still, all the candidates are making appearances - Mitt Romney, last week; Newt Gingrich, tonight; Ron Paul made several weekend stops.

With unemployment below the national average, President Obama may have an advantage in Minnesota. And polls here show Mr. Obama would beat either Romney or Gingrich in a general election match-up. So if the caucuses don't count, and Minnesota has voted Democratic in presidential elections for decades, why do Republicans care?

LARRY JACOBS: Folks are showing up in Minnesota because of the symbolic importance of getting a win.

SEPIC: That's University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. He says now, momentum is what matters.

JACOBS: Even though none of the delegates are going to be apportioned at the Minnesota caucus, it's the ability to either stem momentum for Romney, or add to it, that's drawing the attention from the candidates this week.

SEPIC: With scant polling for the caucuses, it's anyone's guess who will prevail. Former GOP Governor Tim Pawlenty briefly ran for president, and now backs Romney. Pawlenty said in a conference call with reporters that well-organized candidates could benefit from the low turnout.

TIM PAWLENTY: There's a pretty strong contingent of Ron Paul supporters in Minnesota. I don't think he'll win the caucuses, but I think he'll have a respectable showing. Newt Gingrich has had, over the years, a strong following here.

SEPIC: Besides momentum, there's another reason the Republicans are campaigning here. Political scientist Larry Jacobs says with a Republican-controlled legislature, a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot this fall, and a close governor's race two years ago, Minnesota is far from the liberal bastion of yesteryear.

Jacobs says Republicans are taking the opportunity to energize and organize their base, and let President Obama know he can't take Minnesota's 10 electoral votes for granted.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in Minneapolis.

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