For four decades, Minnesota has been fool's gold to every Republican White House hopeful who saw an opportunity there to steal a win in the Democratic-leaning state. But with a still fluid 2012 electoral map, both sides are eyeing the North Star State, known as much for its political quirkiness as for its progressive tradition.
A Republican presidential nominee has not won Minnesota since Richard Nixon pulled off the feat in 1972, making the state the longest-running GOP bust in the nation.
Still, Minnesota has been a hard-fought battleground in the last three presidential cycles. George W. Bush came within 2.4 percentage points of winning there in 2000 and within 3.5 points of taking it in 2004. And in 2008, the Republican Party once again had high hopes for Minnesota. John McCain accepted the party's nomination at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul and both he and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin campaigned in the state that fall, but Barack Obama ended up winning it by a comfortable 10 points.
The current RealClearPolitics polling average has the president leading there by the same margin, but public surveys have been sporadic.
While news organizations have more typically placed Minnesota in the "safely Democratic" column this year, national Republicans and Democrats are positioning themselves to unleash full-bore efforts, if it looks like such a push will be needed and could affect the results.
Obama's operation in Minnesota is being helmed by Jeff Blodgett, who managed all three of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's Senate campaigns there, as well as Obama's 2008 effort in the state. National Democratic strategists privately contend that they do not expect Minnesota to be in play for Romney, but the Obama campaign has nonetheless dispatched field workers to the state.
And when Obama campaign manager Jim Messina released his team's view of the current political map on Monday, Minnesota was listed as a "lean-Democratic" state -- in the same category as Nevada, Michigan, and Pennsylvania -- rather than one that was considered safely in Obama's column.
Obama made an appearance in Minnesota on Friday, speaking in Golden Valley on a day when the Labor Department released gloomy economic news that underscored the challenges he faces nationwide.
Minnesota Democrats say they are taking nothing for granted in November, but they also note several reasons to feel confident about the president's chances.
At 5.8 percent, the unemployment rate stands well below the national average, and progressive organizers are buoyed by a growing sense that a ballot measure on a Minnesota constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage will end up as a boon to Obama.
In a PPP (D) poll released on Tuesday, 49 percent of Minnesota voters said that the state Constitution should not be amended to stipulate that only a union between a man and a woman be recognized as a valid marriage, while 43 percent said that it should be. That result was a reversal from a PPP poll taken four months ago when 48 percent were in favor of the amendment and 44 percent were opposed.
"It's awfully hard for me to figure out how Republicans [can] do well this time in Minnesota," said Wy Spano, a longtime Minnesota Democratic political analyst. "The energy around the constitutional amendment is so enormous."
The Romney campaign has not opened a field office in Minnesota, and the state is not one of the dozen battlegrounds where the Republican National Committee currently has staffers in the field. Still, a Republican source said that it is among the states Republicans are polling to see whether an opening may become apparent; if so, an influx of cash and resources could be authorized by the RNC and the Romney campaign.
Minnesota Republicans expect the presumptive nominee to campaign there at least once this summer and believe that he could make a stronger push if changing demographics reveal the Upper Midwest to be more fertile ground for him than the Mountain West swing states, which have trended Democratic in recent years.
One scenario that might make Minnesota more competitive for the Republicans is if Romney were to select former Gov. Tim Pawlenty as his running mate. Though Pawlenty was elected with less than a majority of the vote in each of his gubernatorial races, the "favorite son" factor may be enough to move the needle slightly in the Republicans' favor.
"Neither side has it at the top of their list right now, but they're going to look at it as one of those states to watch," said Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge. "As we get toward fall and voters start to pay attention and the conventions are over, Minnesota could be back on the radar."
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