MINNEAPOLIS — Rick Santorum gave Minnesota Republicans the chance to prove they're just as socially conservative as their Iowa neighbors, and they responded by handing the Pennsylvania senator a caucus win that at least temporarily shakes up the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
Santorum handily won Minnesota's Republican caucus Tuesday, comfortably ahead of second-place finisher Ron Paul. Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the nomination and a winner here four years ago, was well back in third and Newt Gingrich finished last.
Turnout has generally been low for Minnesota's Republican caucus, and a snapshot of several counties Tuesday night showed turnout markedly lower than the 2008 Republican caucus. Romney won back then by casting himself as the conservative alternative to John McCain, a winning strategy for a state where party processes are traditionally dominated by deeply conservative activists. This year, it was Santorum who rode that wave.
"He seems to have a clear message," said Bruce Mackenthun, a 38-year-old contractor who caucused for Santorum in Shakopee and called him a "consistent conservative" without some of Romney's negatives or Paul's isolationist foreign policy views.
Santorum also might have benefited simply by showing up more. Both he and Paul made a series of visits to Minnesota in the final week, hoping the conservative temperament of its GOP base would help them shake up their underdog campaigns. Gingrich and Romney made only a visit each in the lead-up to Tuesday.
Cheryl Czech, a 56-year-old house painter from Lino Lakes, attended Santorum's rally in Blaine Tuesday afternoon and decided after hearing him speak to support him at caucus.
"I like the way he talks," Czech said. "He sounds so sincere about what he says."
The night's preference ballot doesn'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, Romney could have drawn away from the pack with victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado. Santorum also won in Missouri and late Tuesday was also declared the winner in Colorado.
Bruce Olson, a retired state employee who caucused in the Minneapolis suburb of Andover, said he was open to Santorum or Gingrich but had concerns about Romney: "I like Romney OK but I think he's a little liberal."
Ernie Bedor, a 59-year-old insurance agent, spoke up for Romney during his precinct caucus meeting in Andover. "I think Romney, with his business background, would be a better choice to stimulate our economy, get this economy going and create more jobs."
Nancy and Tom Hill both voted for Paul in Andover. Nancy Hill, an assistant to a financial planner, said she's "evolved over the years from Democrat to independent to Republican." She said she backed Paul because she sees him as the only Republican willing to truly rein in federal spending.
In addition to talking about presidential choices, caucus-goers in Andover touched briefly on issues including several planned or proposed constitutional amendments. They heard a pitch from supporters of the amendment to define marriage in the state Constitution as between a man and a woman only. That prompted debate in the second precinct meeting, with several speaking out for the traditional definition of marriage but a few others opposed or at least undecided.
Cindy Showalter, a nurse, said she had spoken to her 21-year-old son about the issue. "He asked me, 'Would you want the government telling you and Dad you couldn't get married?'" she said.
In 2008, more than 60,000 Republicans attended a caucus — helping Romney easily defeat McCain. Party insiders said despite the competitive nature of the 2012 caucuses, they weren't expecting to rival that number. In Andover, site coordinator Janna Goodrich said the caucus appeared to her to have drawn about three-fourths the number of people that attended in 2008. At one Rosedale hub for several precincts, GOP officials estimated attendance was down from about 350 four years ago to about 300 this time around.
By contrast, in Shakopee — a suburb south of Minneapolis — a line of about 50 people steadily ambled through the Shakopee High School lobby. An organizer, Deputy Chairman of Scott County Republicans Ryan Love, said attendance at his precinct jumped from 5 people four years ago to almost 20 this year.
Jannette Costa, 40, a stay-at-home mother of two daughters, said fiscal and social issues brought her to the Shakopee gathering. She said she's not that happy with either party but supports Santorum: "He's pro-life. He seems to have a very good understanding of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and of what the founders intended for our country."
Santorum and Paul made their last Minnesota appeals on caucus day itself. Speaking to more than 100 supporters in Blaine, another northern Minneapolis suburb, Santorum blasted Romney as a candidate with too many problems in his record to provide a contrast with Obama.
"Minnesota, you don't need to settle for second best. Pick the best," Santorum said.
Paul worked the state hard, dropping in on two caucuses before heading to his own election night party outside Minneapolis. Since Saturday, Paul has drawn thousands to several events, particularly young voters.
Showalter, the nurse at the Andover caucus, said she decided to attend after a discussion with her 21-year-old son, a Paul supporter. Showalter said he's "pumped up" about the election.
"It was embarrassing to hear him say that he was going to caucus and we'd never been to one," Showalter said. "So we decided to go."
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst and Alexandra Tempus contributed to this report.