By PATRICK CONDON
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Ron Paul might be striking out in his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination, but the activist energy his campaign unleashed in Minnesota is positioning one of his followers as the party's unlikely favorite to take on U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in November.
Kurt Bills is a rookie state representative from Rosemount and a high school economics teacher. Until he made a late and unexpected entry into the race in March, Bills was never mentioned as a Republican prospect to challenge Democratic incumbent Klobuchar. But in recent weeks, an increasing number of Republicans have pegged him as the frontrunner to get the pivotal party endorsement at the GOP state convention in May.
"I think we're seeing Kurt Bills picking up some real steam in the last few weeks," said Noah Rouen, a Republican political consultant who hasn't endorsed a Senate candidate. Bills recently unveiled endorsements from more than 30 Republican colleagues in the Legislature, far outpacing the backing touted so far by the other two serious GOP Senate candidates.
Before Bills got in, Republican buzz was building around the campaign of Pete Hegseth. The young, handsome Army veteran from Stillwater has ties to national Republicans and a service record that includes stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. He previously served as national spokesman for a veterans group that advocated the 2007 military surge in Iraq, and appeared best positioned to tap into a national GOP donor base that will be vital to helping offset Klobuchar's huge financial advantage.
By contrast, the amiable, sleepy-eyed Bills looks and comes across as every bit the suburban public schoolteacher and wrestling coach that he is. But he's also a Ron Paul supporter, having endorsed the libertarian Texas congressman prior to Minnesota's presidential caucus in early February. Paul has since returned the favor, endorsing Bills for Senate. That matters, because in recent weeks many of Paul's well-organized supporters have been elected as delegates and alternates to the state convention — in other words, the people who will make the GOP endorsement.
"We're hearing that 40, maybe 45 percent of delegates, maybe more than that are going to be Ron Paul people," said Mike Osskopp, Bills' campaign manager. "It's going to be a significant number."
A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Republican Party said it was difficult to say how many Paul backers would be among the convention delegates and alternates, but their ascent has been the subject of much recent talk in party circles. Last weekend, Minnesota's Republican National Committeewoman Pat Anderson published several tweets about Paul backers "sweeping" delegate elections at several of last Saturday's district conventions.
"Ron Paul Libertarians took the Republicans out of the Minnesota Republican Party today," Katie Nadeau, a party activist, tweeted that day.
Hegseth and Dan Severson, the other Republican candidate, have sought to marginalize Bills by raising questions about Paul. It's a strategy that risks alienating Paul's supporters, but in recent days Hegseth has become more aggressive on the subject.
"What we say very openly and blatantly is that the Ron Paul establishment is taking control of the party," Hegseth said. "They've handpicked Kurt Bills, and they're hoping they can take over the party. We want to give voice to the people who are being boxed out, people who've worked for the party for 10 or 20 years and for the first time they're not going to be delegates."
Severson, a former state representative from Sauk Rapids whose views align more closely with Hegseth, said Paul's libertarian views wouldn't sit well with a larger sample of Republican voters. "He supports legal marijuana, he's not that big on the marriage amendment and he's not that opposed to Iran getting a nuclear weapon," said Severson, who ran as the Republican candidate for Minnesota secretary of state in 2010 but lost to the Democratic incumbent.
For his part, Bills said he believes he can appeal to both Paul supporters and Republicans with qualms about him.
Still, Bills has embraced several of Paul's pet issues. He wants to cut federal spending deeply, and has introduced legislation to make gold and silver coins legal tender in Minnesota. He wants the U.S. military to withdraw from Afghanistan in short order, and to reserve for Congress instead of the president the power to declare war on another country.
That raises red flags for some more traditionally minded Republicans. Paul Brandmire, a St. Cloud truck driver recently elected a state convention alternate, said he considers Paul's foreign policy views to be "dangerous and naive."
"You can't lock yourself in at home," said Brandmire, who supported Rick Santorum for president and is undecided in the Senate race. "You need someone policing the street, and that's what the U.S. is. Like it or not, we're the world's policeman."
Bills said he has heard those concerns. "Every once in a while a delegate will ask me: `Are you a Reagan Republican or a Ron Paul Republican?"' Bills said. "My answer is I'm a Kurt Bills Republican."
Marianne Stebbins, Paul's Minnesota campaign chairwoman, is backing Bills. She said Paul's supporters have taken advantage of Minnesota's caucus system, which rewards organization and shared goals, mainly in pursuit of a strong presence in the delegation that the Minnesota GOP sends to the Republican National Convention in August. There, Paul is expected to make a last-ditch bid to wrest the nomination from Mitt Romney.
Minnesota is not the only state where Paul's forces have used the open caucus system to flex strength. In both Iowa and Colorado, the congressman's backers have been consolidating power in the lead-up to the national convention.
No matter how that turns out, Paul supporters might soon boast a fellow traveler on Minnesota's statewide ballot. So far, both Hegseth and Severson are joining Bills in promising to drop out of the race if they aren't endorsed by the party.
Any of the three faces an uphill fight against the popular Klobuchar, who has raised far more money than the three Republicans put together, with $5.2 million in the bank. But both Hegseth and Severson have started to suggest that Bills' close association with Paul and his unconventional views would make for a weaker candidate against Klobuchar.
"I don't think these are views that can win a general election," Hegseth said. "If Kurt Bills is going to equal Ron Paul, and Ron Paul equals losing, I don't know how we win in November. To me it's an argument about winning elections."