Stakes high for GOP, DFL as Minnesota caucuses near

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Minnesota Democratic caucus goers
Minnesota Democratic caucus goers surround a table, left, for instructions as others, right, check an information display at right, for the location of their precinct meeting rooms Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008 at Roseville Area High School.
Jim Mone | AP 2008

Minnesotans get their first chance Tuesday to weigh in on presidential politics when they meet on caucus night. With the state's influence supersized this year, the work to win delegates here has intensified.

Minnesota's caucuses will run for the first time as part of the Super Tuesday contests. That's given the state some new clout and it's showed, especially among Democrats who've pushed hard across the state in recent weeks to swing the vote toward Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, who's set to campaign today in Minnesota.

Both parties see opportunity here, but they also aren't sure what to expect so they're working now to lock down the little details that could make the difference between winning and losing.

Sanders organizer Justin Henry tried to make that point in his pep talk on a recent Saturday to a squad of door knocking volunteers.

"We need to demystify the caucus process," Henry told them. "A lot of our supporters have never participated in the caucus."

Minnesota is a top target for Sanders. His campaign is working to identify supporters and get them to those 7 p.m. neighborhood meetings on Tuesday, where 77 elected Democratic delegates are up for grabs.

Watching results come in
People look on as a television broadcast declares Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in a dead heat for delegates at the conclusion of the Iowa caucuses at the Boogaloo Cafe on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016 in Burlington, Iowa.
Michael B. Thomas | AFP | Getty Images

Sanders has run lots of ads, as has Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Both have made multiple campaign stops here.

Dillon Wiesner of Minneapolis, a first-time campaign volunteer, said he likes Sanders' chances.

"I think Minnesota is a state that he can win. I think he probably has to win it," he said. "So, it's exciting to be able to make a difference in a state where it's probably close, and we have the right excitement and population to win."

Rebekah Warren of St. Paul, said she feels momentum building for Sanders. "Around the country, he has done an amazing feat of coming out of relative obscurity and now being a serious challenger to his opponent."

Sanders' best-known supporter in Minnesota is U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. Hillary Clinton has lined up nearly all of the state's top elected Democrats, including Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

Not surprisingly, she also has a lot of women on her side. Many showed up last week in Minneapolis for a "Women for Hillary" event aimed at encouraging precinct caucus participation. Inside the crowded house, volunteers were also signing up to make calls and knock on doors.

"I feel like she's the most qualified candidate out there, Democrat or Republican, and I'm excited about a lot of the policies that she has," said Melanie Dawson of St. Louis Park. "I think she can push them through. I think she can get them done, and I think it's time we elect a woman president."

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Other supporters were also quick to mention qualifications. Marta Shore of St. Paul had it at the top of her list of reasons for backing Clinton.

"I do have some friends that are Bernie Sanders supporters, and I respect their enthusiasm for their candidate. I don't disagree with his positions. But I just think Hillary Clinton has got a more realistic approach," she said.

Minnesota saw a record turnout for precinct caucuses in 2008. DFL participation topped 200,000 that year, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were competing for the nomination.

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said the party is preparing for a similar turnout, just in case.

Republican candidates haven't paid as much attention to Minnesota as Democrats. There haven't been any TV ads, and visits from candidates have been relatively rare. Ohio Gov. John Kasich hasn't devoted noticeable resources to Minnesota. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz blew through in December.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has made two quick stops, most recently last week. He's expected to be back in the state on Tuesday afternoon campaigning before caucuses begin.

This is the first year where the Republican caucus votes will have direct bearing on the national convention delegates. So barring a blowout, those 38 delegates are likely to be split three or more ways.

Rubio has support from big names in Minnesota Republican politics, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen.

But he's more interested in getting through to caucus-goers like Kathy Siebenaler. The mother of six from Hastings sees Rubio as her party's most genuine and durable candidate. With the United States Supreme Court makeup in flux and the immigration system in need of a fix, Republicans can't afford to lose, she said.

"He's the best guy who has the best shot of winning in the race," Siebenaler said of Rubio. "That's just what we need to put on the ticket is someone who can beat whoever they put up against us."

The universe of Republican caucus attendees isn't that big. The high-water mark is about 63,000. They tend to draw those with deep social convictions and strong religious backgrounds. That helped ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to a win four years ago.

Brandon Lerch has been studying those demographics as state director for Ted Cruz. Lerch spends his days at the de facto campaign headquarters — his suburban kitchen, where the family dog patters along and his preschooler plays dress-up.

Lerch is coordinating 50 grassroots organizers around the state who have lined up thousands of volunteers and voters. They're making calls to tout Cruz as the candidate who Lerch says is the race's most principled conservative.

"What we've learned from the last several caucuses is that the typical Republican voter who is going to show up is going to be more conservative than your average Republican voter in November," he said. "They are going to be voters that are going to be very interested in substance" and that will benefit Cruz, he added.

Cruz isn't the only candidate trying to attract those voters.

Minnesota is shaping up as make-or-break for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. It's the only Super Tuesday state where he has a paid staffer, former state Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey.

On a recent evening, Carey brought national campaign manager Ed Brookover to a training session for local Carson supporters. Brookover started by asking the few dozen people in the room how many had never caucused before. About 10 hands shot up.

To Carey, that's a sign of hope for the soft-spoken candidate desperate for a strong showing.

"We're finding in talking to people around the state that Dr. Carson's supporters around the state are brand new to the political process," he said. "They vote in November but have never gone to caucus before."

The big unknown is Donald Trump.

The real estate mogul hasn't been here. And there have been very few traces of a traditional campaign.

Still, Trump has come under fire from the conservative group the Minnesota Family Council, which has raised doubts about his stand on abortion, marriage and casino gambling.

But some of the group's allies are backing Trump anyway. They include Andy Parrish, a longtime Republican operative who once had a lead role in former Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's political rise and has been vocal in fights against abortion and gay marriage.

He said he trusts that Trump's views are in line with his own and he expects fellow evangelicals to come up big for Trump.

"Trump is a phenomenon like I have never seen before," Parrish said. "It's almost Bachmann-esque in a way where there is this organic support and there are people who will just do anything and everything to make sure this person is elected."

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