Republicans in Minnesota will have their first chance to weigh in on the presidential election tonight, when the party will caucus in precincts across the state.
GOP voters will be asked to choose among front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Democrats also will gather in caucus meetings, but the big event of the night will be the Republicans' presidential straw poll.
There are no delegates up for grabs at the Minnesota Republican Party caucuses, only bragging rights. The straw poll also is non-binding, so the results will have little to do with how Minnesota's delegates will eventually be allocated at the Republican National Convention in August.
But the caucuses are the first step in a winnowing process that will send delegates to Republican and Democratic county conventions, Congressional district conventions, state and eventually national conventions. The 4,137 local community meetings on each side will also give those who turn out the chance to debate and vote on issues they think are important.
Aiming to lure voter support, the presidential candidates have started paying attention to Minnesota in recent days, both in person and with television advertisements.
Four years ago, contests between Republican candidates Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Mitt Romney and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama lured record numbers of Minnesotans to the caucuses. That year, more than 200,000 attended DFL caucuses and 60,000 showed up on the GOP side.
This year with no contest on their side far fewer Democrats are expected. So far, turnout at Republican nomination events in other states has been running behind where it was four years ago, suggesting that Republicans may not be very enthusiastic about their choice of candidates.
Washington University political science professor Steven Smith expects GOP turnout will be a bit low in Minnesota, despite the spirited Republican presidential nomination battle.
"There's a certain ambivalence toward the candidates among Republicans in Minnesota and nationwide," Smith said. "There's a sense that while Romney might be the best Republicans to take on Obama, he has some characteristics, some past policy experience that leads at least some Republicans to doubt whether he's the ideal choice."
Gingrich has some of the same problems, Smith said.
But Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said he thinks Republicans are excited. He predicts a fairly strong, if not record-breaking, showing.
"Folks are pretty motivated," Shortridge said. "For Minnesotans, this is really their first opportunity to cast their vote against the Obama agenda and it's their opportunity to cast a vote to start the process of making Barack Obama a one-term president."
DFL Party chairman Ken Martin said a great showing for Democrats would be a quarter of the numbers they saw during the last cycle.
Democrats also will conduct a straw poll for president even though Obama is the only one on the ballot. Martin said in addition to supporting Obama's re-election campaign, he expects Democrats will want to have their say about constitutional amendments, such as the one seeking to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
"There are two reasons people come out to the caucuses," Martin said. "One is to support their candidate of choice and two is to push issues that they are getting behind and we see a lot of enthusiasm around a lot of issues like that this year as well as the candidates."
Just like the political parties, groups for and against those amendments are promoting caucus attendance.
The Independence Party of Minnesota aims to build on its support by offering a Web portal into its caucuses. While Democrats and Republicans are focusing on the presidential race, IP leaders say they will pay the most attention to local and state legislature elections.
Complicating this year's caucuses is congressional and legislative redistricting. Even though caucuses are taking place, new maps detailing exactly where the new boundary lines will be drawn won't be out for two more weeks.