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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published May 17 2012

Ron Paul adds mystery to Minn. GOP convention

ST. PAUL – Minnesota Republicans gather in St. Cloud this morning, with the official main event picking a candidate to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

But the undercurrent may be how Ron Paul supporters do today and Saturday.

How strong presidential candidate Paul is among delegates likely will affect the Senate race.

Estimates of the number of Minnesota Paul delegates range from a third to nearly a half of the around 2,000 Republicans who will attend the gathering at the River’s Edge Convention Center.

“Ron Paul is a big factor in this race,” Minnesota U.S. Senate hopeful Pete Hegseth said. “The Ron Paul and Kurt Bills organizations have been completely merged.”

Paul, the Texas libertarian congressman, and Bills have endorsed each other and most Paul supporters may lean toward Bills.

Hegseth, Bills and former state Rep. Dan Severson are battling for the right to face Klobuchar. Whether that battle gets as ugly as recent conventions in other states will be played out in the next two days.

One potential explosive factor already has been diffused. Four years ago, party leaders rejected Paul’s request to speak at the convention. He was relegated to a park next to the Rochester venue where other Republicans were meeting.

This time around, with his current presidential bid limited to state conventions, Paul will talk to the convention after Friday’s Senate endorsement contest and join Bills for a party fundraiser Saturday morning.

Bills, a state House member from Rosemount, said he does not expect the split that has occurred elsewhere: “We feel a lot of unity right now.”

Supporters of the Texas congressman were vocal last weekend at Arizona and Oklahoma GOP conventions. In a handful of other states, Paul backers won a majority of national convention delegates.

Paul finished second to Rick Santorum in the Minnesota caucuses early this year.

Hegseth is not letting the Paul presence slow him down.

“I have always believed in limited government,” Hegseth said, and can fit into the Paul philosophy.

All three “are good conservative guys,” Bills said of the candidates.

Severson, whose campaign did not return calls seeking comment, has been running for a year. Hegseth and Bills entered the race this spring.

Even though Severson ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state two years ago, the three are little known to the general public.

Severson, of Sauk Rapids, is a former state representative; Bills is a high school economics teacher; and Hegseth, from Stillwater, is an Iraqi war veteran and executive director of Vets for Freedom.

To win the party’s endorsement, a candidate needs 60 percent of the convention vote.

Many Republicans wonder if they will have a repeat of conventions a week ago.

While in St. Cloud, Minnesota Republicans will hear a report on the party’s finances, which will inform members of the progress being made to climb out of debt. State delegates also will elect national convention delegates and hear from state GOP leaders and candidates.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.