PPP Poll: Santorum Leads Romney in Minnesota

Sunday, 05 Feb 2012 05:56 PM

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MINNEAPOLIS — The Republican caucuses in Minnesota on Tuesday are a virtual tossup, with front-runner Mitt Romney trailing former Sen. Rick Santorum by a small margin, a poll showed Sunday.

Romney, who strengthened his lead for the White House race with a solid win Saturday in the Nevada caucuses, faces a tougher challenge in the midwestern state, based on the survey from Public Policy Polling (PPP).

The poll gave Santorum, a narrow winner in neighboring Iowa, 29 percent of the vote to 27 percent for the former Massachusetts governor.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign appears to be losing steam, was at 18 percent, while Congressman Ron Paul held 12 percent, the poll showed.

Minnesota has 40 delegates at stake in its nonbinding caucuses, which will select delegates to the Republican convention to choose the party's candidate to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November.

Minnesota is among three heartland states voting on Tuesday, along with Missouri and Colorado. PPP said Tuesday has the potential to be a big day for Santorum, who has had a lead in Missouri and is running second in Colorado.

But the polling group said Romney has momentum after big wins in Florida and Nevada.

A separate PPP poll showed Romney with 40 percent in Colorado to 26 percent for Santorum, 18 percent for Gingrich and 12 percent for Paul.

Romney campaigned four years ago as the more conservative choice than Arizona Sen. John McCain. But Tuesday’s caucuses are unpredictable. Chuck Slocum led Minnesota Republicans in the mid-1970s. He says the activists expected to dominate small turnout are among the most conservative in the country.

Romney won here in 2008, and his financial edge is supplemented by a strong campaign organization. But the motivated and increasingly powerful conservative activists offer encouragement to Gingrich and Santorum, who are voicing a more strident message. A large number of these voters are expected at the caucus meetings.

“Those who attend are the hard core of the hard core of conservatives,” said Ben Golnik, who managed McCain’s Minnesota campaign in 2008 and isn’t backing a candidate this year. “These are truly dedicated conservatives willing to go on a weeknight in the dead of winter.”

The rebellious mood in Minnesota in some ways belies the state’s prosperity. The unemployment rate in January was 5.7 percent, well below the national rate of 8.3 percent. Minnesota was spared the worst of the housing foreclosure crisis, and the farm economy has been buoyed by high prices. Even the perpetually struggling Iron Range of northern Minnesota hopes to add hundreds of jobs from new mining projects.

But those positive signs haven’t lightened the tone.

Conservatives continue to focus on a state government that supports some of the nation’s most generous social programs and a tax structure they consider excessive.

The backlash peaked in 2010 when Republicans chose tea party favorite Tom Emmer as their candidate for governor. The staunch conservative beat several Minnesota moderates for the nomination and then narrowly lost to liberal Democrat Mark Dayton. With Republicans in control of the Minnesota Legislature, state government has one of the widest ideological splits in the nation, made plain by last spring’s budget standoff and the government shutdown that followed.

What all the ferment means for the Republican race this year is a much-debated question.

Romney has establishment support from the likes of former Sen. Norm Coleman and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

But Jennifer DeJournett, a conservative activist who’s working on Gingrich’s Minnesota campaign, said political developments of the last few years have demonstrated that establishment credentials now count for less than ever.

“It used to be, people could anoint you the conservative candidate and that would be fine,” said DeJournett, who leads an activist group called Voices of Conservative Women. “I think that’s what the establishment is really having to struggle with.”

Sensing an opening for a strong social conservative, Santorum’s supporters are airing ads in Minnesota including a $134,000 TV buy by one group. He visited a rural corner of the state last week. Paul and Gingrich are also expected to visit. Paul’s campaign has already run TV ads. The pro-Romney group Restore Our Future had purchased more than $130,000 of air time as of Friday.

Paul’s campaign has organized hard in Minnesota, a state where he finished a distant fourth in 2008.

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