Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul will be well represented at this year's Minnesota Republican Convention in St. Cloud, where the main order of business will be endorsing a candidate to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
But Paul, a Texas congressman who has a loyal following among some party activists, may cast a shadow over the May 18 event.
The three candidates seeking the GOP nomination include former state Rep. Dan Severson, Minnesota Army National Guard Capt. Pete Hegseth and first-term state Rep. Kurt Bills of Rosemount, who has Paul's backing.
Severson and Hegseth say Minnesota Republicans should be concerned about that because Paul's anti-establishment brand of politics would make Bills an unviable candidate to run against Klobuchar in the general election. But the state GOP convention is expected to attract many of Paul's supporters, which could help Bills win the endorsement.
Earlier this year Kurt Bills praised Paul as he introduced him at a campaign rally in the Twin Cities.
"He is the gold standard of leadership and the founder of the revolution to return us, our country to limited government and the core of our beginning," Bills said.
In recent weeks Hegseth has tried to make the case that Bills' support for Ron Paul's "extreme positions" makes Bills the wrong choice for Republicans to put up against Amy Klobuchar.
Hegseth calls Bills Ron Paul's "hand-picked" candidate and claims Bills' campaign is "completely merged" with Paul's. Hegseth has honed-in on Ron Paul's position that the United States should end foreign aid, including to Israel, the nation's main ally in the Middle East.
"We're not attacking Kurt Bills. We're just bringing out facts about what how viable Ron Paul has been in winning elections and how closely tied Kurt Bills is to Ron Paul," Hegseth said. "This isn't about mudslinging. This isn't about being nasty. This is about delegates [who] are going to make a choice."
Severson agrees that Bills' ability to win a general election should be an issue at the convention.
"I think Pete probably brings that up legitimately, that in the general election he's [Bills] just not going to be electable," Severson said.
To spread the word among the GOP delegates, Severson's campaign calls Bills "a surrogate for Ron Paul."
"In my view Kurt Bills has kind of just jumped on the bandwagon by that endorsement and is riding that bandwagon to try and get the senatorial seat," Severson said. "I think that's not necessarily a good thing."
In response, Bills said he has momentum to win the endorsement and the criticism from his opponents proves it.
"I think the other campaigns are starting to get a little, a little desperate if you will," he said.
Bills said his support comes from his positions on the issues, not from Ron Paul's endorsement.
"I think the people who are fans of Congressman Paul are also fans of me because of my stance on deficits and my stance on monetary policy and my stance on the constitution," he said.
Bills also said calling for an end to foreign aid does not make him unelectable.
"Who wouldn't agree with that?" Bills asked. "I mean, we have a country where we're running $1.3- to $1.6 trillion-dollar deficits the last couple of years, and we're shipping money overseas when we can't pay our own bills?"
Ron Paul supporters appear to be well organized heading into the May 18 convention.
So far, Paul has won an overwhelming majority of Minnesota's national convention delegates, indicating that Paul supporters will make up a good share of the state convention delegates. That has led some to question why the Bill's opponents are criticizing Ron Paul.
"At this point you'd want to be building bridges," said 29-year-old Tom Dippel of Cottage Grove, Minn., a newly elected Ron Paul national delegate. Dippel said he doesn't understand why Hegseth is highlighting his differences with the Texas congressman.
"I think it's, in the end, quite possible a mistake because it galvanizes more support towards Kurt Bills," Dippel said.
Dippel said he's leaning toward voting to endorse Bills but he has not made up his mind.
Hegseth and Severson are banking on their belief that Ron Paul fans are independent-minded, that they don't agree with every Paul position and that they'll make the Senate decision on their own.