Rick Santorum scored a convincing win in Minnesota's Republican precinct caucuses, with Ron Paul finishing second, Mitt Romney third and Newt Gingrich at the back of the pack.
The non-binding presidential straw poll was largely symbolic, but could boost Santorum's momentum. Results in Missouri and Colorado could also cut into Mitt Romney's momentum as frontrunner and position Santorum as a conservative alternative.
Of the 187 votes cast at the eight Republican caucuses at Rutherford Elementary School in Stillwater, 87 went to Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator's aggressive campaign in Minnesota paid off. James McGrath of Stillwater said he is convinced Santorum is the most conservative candidate and the best choice.
"He seems to have no undue baggage," McGrath said. "He's very pro-life, as am I. He's strong on defense, and the rest is yet to be determined, I guess."
Mary Holmberg offered similar praise for Santorum.
"Because he's the best candidate, his Christian standpoint and importance of family," she said.
Republicans who gathered at the Stillwater school swiped their drivers licenses through an electronic scanner to register for the caucuses. It was a demonstration of the party's strong support for a proposed constitutional amendment to require all Minnesotans to show photo identification in order to vote.
Taking inspiration from that political fight underway at the State Capitol, a couple of computer-savvy party activists from Stillwater devised an ID scanning system to highlight the issue and speed up check-in at the caucus.
Attendees like Greg Lane were impressed.
"It worked great. Just scan your drivers license and you're done," Lane said.
All four candidates for the GOP presidential nomination spent some time in Minnesota in the lead up to the GOP caucuses. But Ron Paul spent the most time in the state of any of the candidates, and remained in Minnesota on Tuesday night. Paul stopped by the precinct caucuses held at Coon Rapids Middle School.
Jeff Corey of Coon Rapids voted for Paul in the straw poll, even though he doubts the Texas congressman has any chance of winning the Republican nomination.
"Unfortunately no. the religious right won't back him," Corey said. "So really my vote will be considered a waste of a vote, but I'm hoping to send the message to future generations, for my kids, that somebody kind of in the middle is our best bet in my opinion."
Later in the evening, Paul addressed his supporters at a post-caucus rally in Golden Valley.
"Thanks you for all your hard work, and believe it or not, we did very well tonight and have a very, very strong second place," Paul said. "And it's going to continue."
Nationally, Mitt Romney is still viewed as the GOP front-runner. His disappointing third place finish in Minnesota came just four years after winning big in the state's presidential straw poll. He also has former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty campaigning on his behalf.
At a GOP caucus in Moorhead, Ole Laugeness said he supports Romney because he thinks he is the most electable.
"I think he can beat Obama. I really do, no doubt in my mind," Laugeness said. "And I'm sick and tired of people saying we have a weak field of candidates, because we don't."
But neither Laugeness's nor Pawlenty's support did much to help Romney last night. Precinct caucuses mark the beginning of delegate selection in Minnesota. For Republicans, the next step in the process will come at county and legislative district meetings in the upcoming weeks. The next contest in the presidential race is Saturday when Maine holds caucuses. Arizona and Michigan have primaries on Feb. 28.