Minnesota caucus-goers turned out in droves Tuesday to deliver an energy shot to the flagging presidential hopes of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Republicans handed Rubio his only victory in any state so far this campaign season. He'd been fighting for traction since his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses a month ago. Rubio made a big, late push in Minnesota as he struggled to stay relevant in the Republican candidate mix with businessman Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. That included a rally Tuesday afternoon in Anoka County where he ripped Trump as a "con artist" unfit to be president.
Cruz ended up second. Trump, who came out on top in most of the GOP Super Tuesday states, landed in third place in Minnesota — the first time he's run third in any state.
Sanders, battling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, swayed Minnesota Democrats who came to caucuses Tuesday night. With Clinton pounding Sanders in southern primaries, Minnesota was a critical win for Sanders.
Typically an afterthought in the national campaigns, Minnesota caucuses gained some serious clout this year running for the first time as part of the multi-state Super Tuesday contests. The new muscle showed in recent weeks as Democratic and Republican contenders pushed hard across the state to deliver votes and voters on caucus night.
The contest's high profile drove many to caucus Tuesday night. Big crowds were reported in many meeting places with anecdotal reports of many coming to caucus for the first time. At Eastview High School in Apple Valley, the GOP gathering gasped when so many hands went up to signify first-timers at caucuses.
The strong turnout also generated some early chaos at some sites, with packed rooms inside and traffic jams outside leaving many frustrated. Organizational problems popped up at sites across Minnesota and especially around the Twin Cities as caucus leaders struggled to handle the early crush.
Early crowds were out the door and around the corner at the GOP caucus at Minneapolis Edison High School as volunteers worked to get people to the right classroom. At Vadnais Heights Elementary School, some left in frustration after an hour-plus wait. The site appeared to have only a few volunteers and about 1,000 voters.
At Andover High School in the north metro, caucus organizers reported running short of ballots about 20 minutes after the meeting was set to begin. At Murphy Hall on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, DFL caucus leaders switched to note pad paper after quickly running out of ballots.
"I've never seen a caucus like this one before," said Pat Mast, co-chair of Republican House District 7A in East Duluth. "We had hundreds of people attending. I've been doing these for about 20 years and this is absolutely a record breaker for attendance."
DFL and Republican leaders urged people to continue to their caucus sites and promised that those who were in line by 8 p.m. would get a chance to cast their vote. As the crowds eased and the vote counting began, it became clear that the state's Republicans were poised to hand Rubio his single victory of the campaign season.
Republican candidates hadn't paid as much attention to Minnesota as Democrats. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is focused on winning his home state. Cruz blew through in December.
That seemed to open the door for Rubio, who saw opportunity. He got the backing of big names in Minnesota Republican politics, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen. He made a push of time and resources that ultimately paid off.
Sanders made a similar push to win Minnesota delegates. His campaign hustled to identify supporters and get them to the Tuesday caucuses. He also peppered the airwaves with ads and made multiple visits to the Twin Cities and northeast Minnesota leading up to the vote.
Clinton also made multiple campaign stops here, including a push hours before caucuses began Tuesday.
"I want to break down all the barriers," Clinton told a coffee house gathering in Minneapolis. "I want to tackle the economic barriers, get more good jobs growing, get more incomes rising. But we also have to deal with health care, education and a lot of the other issues that are on people's minds today. And I intend to tackle all of them."
The DFL caucuses at Central High School in St. Paul drew big crowds well ahead of the 7 p.m. start Tuesday. Caucus-goer Nicolas Goldsmith came to support Hillary Clinton.
"She's the most experienced candidate running," Goldsmith said. "She's the best candidate to continue the progress made by Obama."
Barry Hanson was among those caucusing for Bernie Sanders. "Bernie's the only candidate who's authentic, who actually has solutions and tells how to pay for them," Hanson said.
Rubio made strong inroads with voters in the Twin Cities' suburbs and seemed to find his stride as blasted Trump during his Tuesday speech in Andover prior to the caucuses. He called Trump a con artist and warned a vote for Trump on caucus night would be a vote Clinton in November.
Americans, he said, were hurting, but he cautioned "that anger and frustration should not define who we are." He compared Trump to former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, an ex-professional wrestler who used his celebrity to get elected.
"How did that work out for Jesse Ventura?" Rubio asked. "Jesse Ventura was an embarrassment."
Seventy-seven Democratic delegates were up for grabs in Minnesota; 38 on the Republican side. Both parties allocate delegates proportionally, meaning even losing candidates could pick up some delegates. Democrats also have 16 so-called "superdelegates." They are party leaders and elected officials who can cast their votes at the national convention without regard to Tuesday's results.
Despite their Minnesota wins, it's not clear whether Rubio or Sanders have any momentum beyond Minnesota. Sanders also won Oklahoma, Colorado and Vermont but was crushed by Clinton in the southern states Tuesday night.
It's also hard to know how Rubio can capitalize on his one victory to date. Still, some analysts saw the Minnesota numbers as the first signs in the country of a "not Trump" vote that could begin to surface in other states.
Noting the very high turnout among Republicans Tuesday night, GOP political analyst Maureen Shaver told MPR News that it may be that Minnesota Republicans wanted to send a message in their support of Rubio and Cruz. "Frankly," she said, "it may be that we wanted to be the first ones to stop Donald Trump."
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, chairman of Rubio's Minnesota effort, said Rubio's victory here keeps it a three-person race for the Republican presidential nomination. Rubio, he added, has brought an "inspirational message" and "I don't think it's too late" to beat Trump.
MPR News reporters Jon Collins, Peter Cox, Riham Feshir, Mark Zdechlik, Mark Steil, Tracy Mumford, Dan Kraker and Dan Gunderson contributed to this report.
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