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Courted by candidates, Minn. GOP voters study up

BLAINE, Minn. — Courted to the end, Minnesota Republicans drew rare personal attention from presidential hopefuls as they headed to caucuses that were more contested than in the past.

Underdogs Rick Santorum and Ron Paul made last-minute appeals for votes with visits, their latest of several in the past week. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich also spent time in the state during the caucus run-up. In Romney’s case, his campaign relied on phone calls, television ads and mail as the former Massachusetts governor campaigned in Colorado.

The night’s preference ballot won’t bind any of the 40 national convention delegates, but it offers plenty of symbolic importance. Coming off back-to-back primary wins in Nevada and Florida, front-runner Mitt Romney hopes contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado distance him from the GOP pack.

Speaking to more than 100 supporters in the suburb of Blaine, Santorum blasted Romney as a candidate with too many problems in his past record to stand up against President Barack Obama.

“Minnesota, you don’t need to settle for second best. Pick the best,” Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said.

Greg Gonet, a 52-year-old transplant from Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania, said he would attend his first caucus with the intent to back who he saw as the most relatable GOP candidate. Gonet, who works in manufacturing sector, said Santorum’s blue-collar message would fare well with political independents like him.

“This guy is a little more down-to-earth,” Gonet said. “He can resonate with the common guy.”

Paul, a Texas congressman, was also working the state hard and planned two caucus drop-ins and an election night party outside Minneapolis. Since Saturday, Paul has drawn thousands to several events, particularly young voters.

Kyle Johnson, a student St. Cloud State, spent part of his 21st birthday at Ron Paul’s rally at St. Cloud on Monday. He said he would back Paul on Tuesday night in part because of the candidate’s anti-war stance.

“I support Ron Paul first, not the Republican Party,” Johnson said.

Signs were pointing to a closer margin than Romney’s 2008 runaway win in Minnesota over John McCain. That year, more than 60,000 Republicans went to a caucus. Party insiders said despite the competitive nature of the 2012 caucuses, they weren’t expecting to rival that number.

Romney backer Eric Radtke, 32, had a quiet confidence that the former Massachusetts governor would win again. The telecommunications salesman from Shakopee said he saw Romney as the party’s best hope to defeat Obama in the fall. Plus, Radtke said, “every time I hear him he seems to exude the level of respect for this country that I think it deserves.”

Other Republicans weren’t as charitable.

Terry Groetken said he’d have to “hold my nose” to vote for Romney in November, because he doesn’t trust him to stay consistent on core conservative principles. Groetken, a 71-year-old retired optical salesman from Plymouth, planned to cast his vote for Gingrich.

“He’s a bulldog,” Groetken said, reflecting on Gingrich’s days as House speaker in the 1990s. “I’m old enough to remember Newt taking over and doing a pretty good job.”

Santorum saw large crowds during three days of campaigning. He was banking on support from the GOP’s most socially conservative voters who value his stands against legalized abortion and gay marriage.

Some Republicans were also using Tuesday’s caucus to draw attention to their push for a constitutional amendment requiring voters to present identification before being allowed to vote. GOP activists at a Stillwater caucus had purchased an ID scanner similar to what might be used at Minnesota polling places in hopes of showing the requirement isn’t as burdensome as critics say.