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State GOP proclaims unity and optimism, but divisions still an issue

Internal squabbles still need to be resolved to energize disappointed Ron Paul followers and lukewarm John McCain supporters. Delegates, however, were able to unite in opposition whenever two words were spoken: Al Franken. 

The state’s Republicans came out of their weekend state convention in Rochester declaring unity and optimism.

But there are big questions about whether they have either.

There’s a substantial Ron Paul faction of newcomers to party activism, many of whom went home angry following the conclusion of the convention Saturday. 

“We got steamrolled,” said Marianne Stebbins, a longtime party activist who headed the Paul for President campaign in Minnesota. “For some, that means they’ll just re-double their efforts. But I think some will just go home and say they’ve had enough.” 

Texas Rep. Ron Paul
Texas Rep. Ron Paul

But the Paul supporters, who rallied around their guy outside the convention hall on Friday because he wasn’t allowed to speak from the convention podium, weren’t the only ones with questions about the direction of the party.

Party Chairman Ron Carey still is taking heat from some for announcing his support of Mike Huckabee before Minnesota’s February caucuses.

Convention offers support for Carey

Carey’s supporters were able to change the party bylaws so that he’ll have more job protection between now and 2009, when the Republicans again elect a chairman. But the fight over that bylaw change was close and passion-filled.

It’s not known whether Carey even will want to run for the post again. But if he does, he’ll almost certainly face a brawl, perhaps as brutal as the one he was involved in when he knocked out incumbent chair Ron Ebensteiner in 2005. There’s the Paul group that dislikes him now more than ever, and there are others who say Carey deserves blame for the massive defeats the party suffered in statewide elections in the last two cycles.

Ron Carey
 GOP Chair Ron Carey

“There are always a handful of people who are unhappy,” said Mark Drake, the party’s communications director.

That Karl Rove was invited to be the keynote speaker even raised eyebrows among some party faithful. Rove, once known as the master manipulator of the Bush administration, now is seen by many Republicans as the reason the administration stumbled so badly – at least in the polls.

Why invite a fallen hero? 

“He still has juice with the many of the rank and file,” said Drake.  “He’s a big guest for a state party to bring in. On the other hand, I doubt that the average Minnesotan cares. The DFL is bringing in Howard Dean (as keynoter for its convention in Rochester this weekend.) I’m sure many see him at least as controversial (as Rove).”

Karl Rove
REUTERS/Jason Reed
Karl Rove

Rove used the Rochester podium to ridicule Barack Obama for “naiveté, inexperience and arrogance.”

The convention wasn’t without unifying moments.

Unifying moments: mentioning Al Franken

The mention of Al Franken is a unifier among Republicans.  

Gov. Tim Pawlenty was greeted with enthusiasm, even when he spoke of John McCain, who still does not inspire confidence among Minnesota Republicans. Pawlenty got a standing ovation for lines like this: “He’s going to win the war; he’s going to hold a lid on spending; and he’s going to appoint conservatives to the Supreme Court.”

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And Sen. Norm Coleman seems to be almost universally liked – if not loved. On Friday night, he was endorsed by acclamation.

“My wings are the great Republican Party and the bold vision we can bring to the future,” said Coleman.

But the wings look a little gimpy, given party dynamics.

Sen. Norm Coleman
Sen. Norm Coleman

Enthusiasm and unity coming out of a convention do matter. Convention delegates represent the pulse of the party. But if convention delegates aren’t commtted, who will contribute money and energy to congressional and state legislative races?

Judging by votes at the convention, Stebbins believes that roughly 40 percent of the delegates were Paul supporters, or sympathetic to Paul.

She said she will stay committed to Republican candidates . She’s not so sure how many of the newcomers, who were drawn to politics by Paul, will respond to the political season ahead.

Laughing, she talked of how “Dr. Paul” is not a great orator.

“But to his followers, he’s a rock star,” she said. “He’s music to their ears.” 

Stebbins predicted that the Paul-ites won’t do any work for McCain and not much work for Coleman. However, she sees them working hard for such congressional candidates as Barb Davis White in the 5th District and Brian Davis in the 1st.  At best, Davis White is a long shot in her race against Keith Ellison. Davis meets Sen. Dick Day in a primary, with the winner taking on incumbent Tim Walz.,” she said.

“The thing I’m hoping is that if you tell a Ron Paul person they can’t win, they’ll try even harder,” she said. “That’s the way we’ll change leadership in this party.”

There’s passion in that thought. But not a lot of unity.