BISMARCK, N.D. — Despite having one of the lowest delegate totals of the Super Tuesday contests, North Dakota was set to host one of four remaining Republican presidential candidates as Ron Paul planned to give a speech to caucus-goers in what he viewed as potentially one of his best chances yet to finish first in a statewide election.
North Dakota caucus sites were slowly starting the final preparations for the thousands of voters expected to gather at nearly 60 locations Tuesday. In Fargo at the Ramada Plaza Suites, reporters began setting up in the 15,000-sq.-foot ballroom that's expected to host the Texas congressman, while workers got into place at the voting tables.
Although North Dakota will award just 28 delegates out of the 419 available in 10 states on Tuesday, Paul has done well in other caucus states such as Iowa and Maine and was far more active in North Dakota than his rivals, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Paul also was hoping for victory in Alaska and Idaho, which also were hosting caucuses.
North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, a candidate for the U.S. House, predicted Paul would "win easily."
North Dakota GOP Chairman Stan Stein said about 4,000 ballots are printed up just for the Fargo site. In 2008, about 9,500 voters cast ballots, but because the weather is pleasant and the contest is heated, Stein said he wouldn't be surprised if as many as 12,000 voters turned out.
Tammy Owens, whose job Tuesday was to hand out ballots for two districts in southwest Fargo, said this race is more interesting than the one she worked four years ago.
"It just seems like a tighter race," she said.
Romney and Santorum waited to see whether their own North Dakota campaigning would pay dividends. Gingrich did not campaign in the state.
Paul's staffers have long acknowledged he isn't likely to topple front-runners Romney and Santorum in direct voting setups such as primaries. But caucuses, which generally are meetings open to all registered party voters, tend to draw more dedicated voters, partly because the process is more drawn out. Decided voters attempt to court the undecided to back their candidate. And Paul supporters are famously dedicated.
The North Dakota caucuses were opening at 5:30 p.m. local time and closing at 8 p.m. A handful of caucus locations are in the Mountain time zone in southwestern North Dakota, and will stay open an hour later than locations in the Central time zone.
North Dakota residents who will be at least 18 years old on Election Day, Nov. 6, may take part. Participants must have identification, such as a driver's license, to be eligible to vote in the caucuses, said Matt Becker, a state GOP spokesman.
Kyle Kearns, 23, is working a booth in the Fargo caucus site from a district that includes North Dakota State University.
"Hopefully, the college students will come flowing in," he said.
Kearns, a Paul supporter, fixes furnaces for a living. He said he went to a department store Monday and bought an $8 tie — red, of course — for the occasion.
"I think it's going to be an exciting night," he said. "Look at me, I don't put on a tie. I don't do that."
Paul's Tuesday visit will be his second to North Dakota in three weeks. He campaigned in Williston, Dickinson, Bismarck and Jamestown over two days last month, drawing almost 3,000 people.
Romney made a brief stop in Fargo last week. Santorum spent a day campaigning in Fargo and Tioga, a community in northwestern North Dakota's bustling oil-producing region.
Meanwhile, supervisors of caucus sites were finishing up their preparations Monday.
In Bottineau, in north-central North Dakota near the Canadian border, Pamela Smith has 120 ballots ready, and a copy machine nearby at the public library in case more are needed. The library, which is inside the Bottineau County courthouse, is hosting the caucus.
Smith expects more participants than the 100 people who showed up at the Republican caucuses four years ago. Romney won that contest with 36 percent of the vote; Paul was third, with 21 percent.
"If it looks like we're running out of ballots, it shouldn't take too long to make some more," Smith said.
Dale Wetzel is reporting from Bismarck, N.D. Dave Kolpack is reporting from Fargo, N.D.