In Minn., Rightward Drift Challenges Romney
Minnesota once took pride in progressive reform and political consensus.
Then last summer warring leaders shut down state government during a fierce political struggle in the Capitol. Vitriol commonly erupts during otherwise routine political discussions, and people are arguing over whether to ban gay marriage.
So much for the state’s modern political heritage.
Minnesota Republicans are now "among the most conservative party activists in the country," said Chuck Slocum, who led the Minnesota Republican Party in the mid-1970s.
And that could pose problems for front-runner Romney, fresh off a commanding win in Nevada and eager to extend his winning streak. Candidates considered more conservative - former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - are working to impede the former Massachusetts governor’s march to the nomination. For now, even the libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, long considered a gadfly, could be a player in the Minnesota caucuses.
Without recent reliable polls, gauging just where the race stands is tough.
Romney won here in 2008, and his financial edge is supplemented by a strong campaign organization. But the motivated and increasingly powerful conservative activists offer encouragement to Gingrich and Santorum, who are voicing a more strident message. A large number of these voters are expected at the caucus meetings.
"Those who attend are the hard core of the hard core of conservatives," said Ben Golnik, who managed Arizona Sen. John McCain’s Minnesota campaign in 2008 and isn’t backing a candidate this year. "These are truly dedicated conservatives willing to go on a weeknight in the dead of winter."
The rebellious mood in Minnesota in some ways belies the state’s prosperity. The unemployment rate in January was 5.7 percent, well below the national rate of 8.3 percent. Minnesota was spared the worst of the housing foreclosure crisis, and the farm economy has been buoyed by high prices. Even the perpetually struggling Iron Range of northern Minnesota hopes to add hundreds of jobs from new mining projects.