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Minnesota’s reputation as electoral battleground state appears to be waning

Bill Salisbury, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. –

In a sign that the presidential race is heating up, Mitt Romney is on his most intensive campaign swing since locking up the Republican nomination — a five-day, six-state bus tour with stops in Wisconsin and Iowa.

But not in Minnesota.

What happened to the North Star State? In the previous three presidential elections, it was one of the top battleground states in the nation, and the candidates were here a lot.

This year, Romney has made just one brief stop in Minnesota before the Feb. 7 precinct caucuses, and his campaign is only now getting off the ground in the state. President Barack Obama, by contrast, gave a major policy address here June 1, and his campaign in the state has been up and running for 15 months with four campaign offices and more than 30 paid organizers building a large grass-roots operation across the state.

“We are more blue than red, and I think all the campaigns know that now,” Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said last week.

While the two candidates are running neck and neck in national surveys, state polls show Obama has a double-digit lead over Romney in Minnesota. The president led the GOP challenger 54 percent to 39 percent in the most recent survey released last week by Public Policy Polling.

Those polls suggest Minnesota won’t be a swing state this year, Schier said.

But it isn’t a solid blue state, either. Most national political analysts put it in the light-blue category.

The New York

Times, the Rothenberg Political Report and RealClearPolitics.comall rank Minnesota as “leans Obama,” while the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, list it as “likely Democrat.”

Although Rothenberg Political Report editor and publisher Stuart Rothenberg doesn’t see Minnesota as one of the eight “swing” states that are closest and could go either way, he listed it as one of five potentially competitive “battleground states.” That means he thinks a presidential campaign could make the race close by spending money in the state.

While Obama is ahead in Minnesota, he hasn’t locked it up.

“We’re not taking Minnesota for granted, so we’re going all out,” said Jeff Blodgett, Obama’s state campaign manager.

Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said that while the Romney campaign hasn’t yet targeted the state, he thinks they will be in the months ahead.

“Nobody thinks we’re at the top of the (Romney) priority list,” Shortridge said, “but I certainly think we’re in play, and I certainly think they’re going to be looking at the map and figuring out where they’ve got new opportunities. I think this is going to be one of those states.”

Unlike the Obama campaign, which has an organization separate from the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the Romney operation will be part of a united Republican Party effort.

“Our campaign is organizing and growing our volunteer base in Minnesota,” said Romney campaign spokeswoman Sarah Pompei. “We’ll be mobilizing over the summer and into the fall to contact voters to make sure we have a strong get-out-the-vote program in Minnesota.”

The Obama campaign has offices in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Hopkins, Duluth and Rochester and plans to open another in Eagan within two weeks, said campaign spokesperson Kristin Sosanie. They have already recruited “thousands” of volunteers to staff phone banks, knock on doors and make personal pitches for the president.

“I think we’re going to have a grass-roots campaign on a scale that hasn’t been seen before,” Blodgett said.

Still, it isn’t like it used to be.

In 2008, both Obama and GOP presidential candidate John McCain made numerous stops in Minnesota, the Republican National Convention was in St. Paul, and the state was one of about a dozen that both campaigns bombarded with TV ads.

Minnesota was targeted because, although no Republican had carried it since 1972, it had become a swing state. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the state by just 2 percentage points over George W. Bush, and four years later Democrat John Kerry narrowly topped Bush by 3 points.

But in 2008, Obama beat McCain in Minnesota by 10 points and also carried Iowa and Wisconsin by double-digit margins.

Now, Iowa and Wisconsin are more inviting targets for Romney than Minnesota because polls show he’s running a tight race with the president in those two states, and both have Republican governors and strong party leadership, said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

“In Minnesota, you don’t have that,” Jacobs said. Gov. Mark Dayton is a DFLer, and the state Republican Party is more than $1 million in debt, has been rocked by a state Senate sex scandal and has endorsed a little-known and underfinanced candidate, state Rep. Kurt Bills, to challenge well-known U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has more than $5 million in her campaign treasury to lead her party’s ticket.

“The Minnesota Republican Party may be at its weakest point in some time,” he said. It can’t provide as much help to Romney as the neighboring states’ parties.

Schier agreed. Obama’s big lead in the polls in Minnesota and the state party’s problems “together have put up a big, flashing yellow light for the Romney campaign.”

He doesn’t expect that to change much before the Nov. 6 election, predicting Minnesotans won’t see as much of the candidates or their 30-second TV spots as they did in 2004 and 2008.

“We’re going to have a much less intense political season than we have been used to, and that may produce a sigh of public relief,” Schier said.

But Jacobs asserted Minnesota remains “fundamentally a competitive state.” He predicted Romney would wage an aggressive campaign in the state, if for no other reason than to “force the Obama campaign to fight for a state they’d like to take for granted.”

He also expects both candidates to campaign in the state.

“I think it’s a matter of when they’re coming, not whether,” he said.

Spokespersons for the two campaigns said neither candidate has scheduled visits to Minnesota, and they probably won’t know when they’re coming until a few days before they arrive.

But both sides said Minnesotans would hear a lot more about their candidates.

“Going out and talking to voters about the choices in this election, done on a mass scale, to me is the most effective way of reaching voters,” said the Obama campaign’s Blodgett. “We plan to talk to hundreds of thousands of voters more than once between now and Election Day.”

Pompei of the Romney campaign said: “Voters in Minnesota will have many opportunities to learn about Governor Romney’s proposals to get our economy back on track and get people working again.”

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