The Minnesota Republican convention gets underway this morning in St. Cloud. The main order of business for the delegates is to endorse a candidate to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in the November election.
But Ron Paul will be a prominent force at the convention even though he recently stepped back from actively campaigning for president. Paul is scheduled to speak to the party delegates Friday evening.
It's an exciting time for Minnesota Republicans who back Paul's libertarian brand of politics. No longer can they be dismissed as a powerless fringe element of their party.
"Because of the delegate numbers, the Ron Paul people are actually, probably in a position of power at the state convention," said Kevin Erickson, a national delegate for Ron Paul.
Erickson, 44, is a pastor from Virginia on the Iron Range. He'll be at the state convention and he'll be in good company.
"If everyone shows up, we're going to have close to a majority of the delegates," he said.
"The Ron Paul people are probably in a position of power at the state [GOP]convention."
Like other Paul supporters, Erickson's main goal at the convention will be to elect more Paul national delegates. Paul has already won 20 of the 24 national delegates elected at the district conventions which were held earlier this spring.
"It's evolved quite a bit from 2008," said Marianne Stebbins, Paul's Minnesota campaign chair.
Four years ago, Minnesota sent just six Paul delegates to the Republican National Convention.
At the state convention, 13 more national delegates are up for grabs, and it's hard to imagine the Paul camp won't get at least some of those. Just one more would give Paul a majority of Minnesota's national convention delegates.
"We'll hope we'll win that one, maybe a couple more at the state convention," said Stebbins.
In addition to choosing additional national delegates, state convention delegates will endorse one of three U.S. Senate candidates. Ron Paul threw his support behind Kurt Bills over Pete Hegseth and Dan Severson, and that could give Bills a big advantage.
It's unclear in what other ways Ron Paul backers will seek to be heard, since the party leaders aren't up for election until next spring. But the GOP's constitution and platform could be rewritten.
Erickson, the Ron Paul supporter from the Iron Range, hopes the delegates will approve a measure opposing national laws that allow Americans to be detained without trial or due process.
Fellow Ron Paul national delegate Mark Zasadny, 38, from Roseville, said he'd be interested in supporting a provision that would strip the Republican endorsement from candidates who stray from the party platform.
"Part of this is the whole movement we saw with the tea party movement -- where they were tired of candidates talking tough, talking Republican boiler-plate rhetoric to get the endorsement, and then they ended up voting in ways that looked like total compromises to Republican principles. And that frustrated so many people," said Zasadny.
Both Zasadny and Erickson acknowledge tension between the Ron Paul supporters and other wings of the party.
In other states the friction has boiled over. In Oklahoma, the delegates at that state's GOP convention last weekend reportedly came to blows at one point.
Oklahoma Republican Chairman Matt Pinnell acknowledged his convention did not go well.
Even Oklahoma's popular Republican governor, Mary Fallin, "was booed on stage by a lot of our delegates," said Pinnell, because she has endorsed Mitt Romney for president.
Pinnell says an even more disappointing moment came when another Romney supporter, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, tried to speak at the convention.
"He was almost booed off stage," said Pinnell. "It was hard for him to get through his entire speech."
Some political observers say Ron Paul's increasing popularity could turn off mainstream Republicans and independents who view the Texas congressman as extreme.
But Minnesota GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge is taking a positive tone.
"Anytime you have a growing party, that's not a problem, that's a tremendous opportunity," he said.
Shortridge notes it's not the first time one group or another has brought new energy and ideas to an established party.
"You're going to have some arguments inside the family, some disputes," Shortridge said. "But those are ultimately healthy things about what a political party is."
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