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Romney camp downplays its chances in Minnesota

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Four years ago, Mitt Romney swept Minnesota’s GOP caucuses with 41 percent to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 22 percent.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R), a top Mitt Romney supporter, is downplaying Romney’s chances in the Gopher State. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Will the former Massachusetts governor win just as handily when Minnesota votes tomorrow?

Don’t count on it, the Romney camp says.

In a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, former Minnesota governor and top Romney backer Tim Pawlenty (R) argued that Tuesday’s caucuses in his home state will be a close race.

“It’s a relatively small turnout, and the caucus attendees here tend to gravitate to the most conservative candidate,” Pawlenty said, quickly correcting himself to say “the most perceived conservative candidate.”

Pawlenty noted that in 2008, about 60,000 voters turned out for Minnesota’s GOP caucuses. If a similar share turns out this time around, it would represent about 2 percent of the state’s 3 million registered voters. In the Gopher State, voters do not register by party.

Pawlenty contended that former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has visited Minnesota “many, many, many times over the decades” and has a “loyal following” in the state. Romney, who is spending Monday campaigning in Colorado, has been to Minnesota “a bit,” Pawlenty said.

“I can’t tell you who’s going to turn out on top,” Pawlenty told reporters, adding that he “could easily see a scenario where the top three or four candidates tomorrow are bunched together toward the top of the pack.”

Pawlenty made the comments on a phone call organized by the Romney campaign to take aim at former senator Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) record, part of a broader offensive by Romney against Santorum as the GOP presidential battle enters its second month of nominating contests. Polls show Santorum, who won last month’s Iowa caucuses, gaining traction in a number of upcoming states including Minnesota and Missouri, both of which vote Tuesday.

A potential loss by Romney in Minnesota tomorrow – coupled with his close second-place showing in Iowa – could signify that the former Massachusetts governor faces difficulty among midwestern Republicans.

But Pawlenty, who dropped his own GOP bid last year and soon after endorsed Romney, said that’s not the case.

“If you move beyond the early stages of the party process and look more broadly at how Republicans feel about the various candidates ... it’s really clear that the strongest candidate to run against Barack Obama in these states is Mitt Romney,” he said.

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