BISMARCK, N.D. — Despite having one of the lowest delegate totals of the Super Tuesday contests, North Dakota hosted one of the four remaining Republican presidential candidates as Ron Paul sought to woo caucus-goers in what he viewed as one of his best chances yet to finish first in a statewide election.
North Dakota caucus sites were ready for more than 10,000 voters at nearly 60 locations Tuesday. Thousands of people filled the Ramada Plaza Suites in Fargo, where Paul spoke for about 20 minutes in hopes of courting undecided voters to his side.
"We do well in some of these states where we have not won, we may still win because of the delegate process. It still is nice to win some of these straw votes. That's certainly what we would like to do today," Paul told The Associated Press ahead of his scheduled speech.
Polls closed at 8 p.m. CST. A winner wasn't expected to be declared for at least a couple of hours.
Paul took the stage at about 6:40 p.m. to a room full of supporters shouting so loudly that they had to be quieted by others in the crowd.
"The cause of liberty is on a roll, I'll tell you that," Paul said above the cheers. He left after his speech and boarded a flight back to Texas.
Hundreds of people had gathered in Bismarck a solid hour before polling began. Demory Nunley, 18, of Bismarck, said she liked Mitt Romney's business background and would vote for him.
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, 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 were printed up just for the Fargo site. In 2008, about 9,500 voters cast ballots, but because the weather is pleasant and the contest heated, Stein said he wouldn't be surprised if as many as 12,000 voters turned out.
Romney backer Jane Towne, 85, of Bismarck, was among those gathered at the Bismarck Civic Center exhibit hall, which was plastered with posters extolling the candidates. Towne said she felt that "we need somebody who knows something about the economy.
"I don't like all of this business with social issues," she added. "I think they are personal. (Romney is) smart. He's done a lot of things. Sure, he's got money, but he doesn't seem to be too impressed with himself."
Larry Olson, 66, a retired North Dakota state corrections officer, wore a Rick Santorum sticker. Santorum campaigned in Fargo last month, and Olson said his mind was made up to support him then.
"He's a strong person, physically, emotionally, mentally," Olson said. "It's going to take a strong person to deal with all of the problems."
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.
Still, many of the Bismarck participants made a beeline for voting tables and ignored tables set up by supporters of the presidential candidates — a sign that their minds were already made up.
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, was working a booth in the Fargo caucus site from a district that includes North Dakota State University. 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."
In Bottineau, in north-central North Dakota near the Canadian border, Pamela Smith had 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 expected 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.