MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Republican voters rewarded the two candidates who spent the most time in the state in the days leading up to Tuesday's caucus, dealing a clear victory to Rick Santorum and helping to at least temporarily shake up the race for the GOP nomination.
The former Pennsylvania senator handily won Minnesota's Republican caucus, comfortably ahead of second-place Ron Paul. Front-runner Mitt Romney was well back in third, and Newt Gingrich finished last.
Santorum and Paul both 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. For Santorum, the gambit worked.
"I like the way he talks. He sounds so sincere about what he says," said Cheryl Czech, 56, a house painter from Lino Lakes who attended Santorum's rally in Blaine on Tuesday afternoon and decided after hearing him speak to support him at caucus. She said the other candidates "are so political in their back and forth."
Bruce Mackenthun, a 38-year-old contractor at a caucus in Shakopee, called Santorum a "consistent conservative" without some of Romney's negatives and preferable foreign policy views compared to Paul.
"He seems to have a clear message," Mackenthun said. "He hasn't had to change it really through the whole campaign."
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 had hoped contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado would distance him from the GOP pack. Santorum also won in Missouri and late Tuesday was also declared the winner in Colorado.
Santorum and Paul were expected to benefit from a low turnout that increased the power of more conservative voters most likely to show up. A snapshot of several counties showed turnout significantly lower than four years ago.
Romney won the Minnesota caucus in 2008 running as the conservative alternative to John McCain, but this year saw other candidates run to his right. 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 in support of 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." But she said she's supporting 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."
Leon King, 64, said he was supporting Gingrich with the thought he'd be the best match for Obama in presidential debates. "He's more experienced," King said.
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 writer Alexandra Tempus contributed to this report from Shakopee.