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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Normally overlooked, Minnesota Republicans reveled in a chance to sway a party presidential nominating contest in Tuesday night caucuses that for once were on the radar of all the major contenders.

Party faithful prepared to register their preferences in a straw ballot that won’t bind any of the 40 national convention delegates. But it offers plenty of symbolic importance. Coming off back-to-back wins, front-runner Mitt Romney hopes contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado add more distance from a chase pack of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

The foursome gave Minnesota voters personal attention with a host of visits spread out over the last week. Signs were pointing to a closer margin than Romney’s 2008 runaway win in Minnesota over eventual GOP nominee John McCain. That year, more than 60,000 Republicans went to a caucus; party insiders said despite the competitive nature of the 2012 caucuses they weren’t expecting to rival that number.

Romney backer Eric Radtke, 32, had a quiet confidence that the former Massachusetts governor would win again. Radtke, a telecommunications salesman from Shakopee, said he saw Romney as the party’s best hope to defeat incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama in the fall.

Plus, Radtke said, “every time I hear him he seems to exude the level of respect for this country that I think it deserves.”

Other Republicans weren’t as charitable.

Terry Groetken said he’d have to “hold my nose” to vote for Romney in November as the party nominee because he doesn’t trust him to stay consistent on core conservative principles.

Groetken, a 71-year-old retired optical salesman from Plymouth, planned to cast his vote for Gingrich.

“He’s a bulldog,” Groetken said, reflecting on Gingrich’s days as House speaker in the 1990s. “I’m old enough to remember Newt taking over and doing a pretty good job.”

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, pulled large crowds during three days of campaigning. He was banking on support of the GOP’s most socially conservative voters who value his unflinching stands against legalized abortion and gay marriage, for instance.

And Ron Paul, a 12-term Texas congressman, campaigned in the state from Saturday on. He planned to await Tuesday’s results in a Minneapolis suburb.

Sam Schueller, a recent St. Cloud Technical College graduate, said Paul’s longshot nomination hopes didn’t bother him. He considered Paul the most trustworthy of the bunch.

“Both parties have a lot of hobbyhorses that they’re happy to compromise over. Ron Paul has a set of beliefs and he will keep to those beliefs no matter who’s in the room listening,” Schueller said. “The truth is he’s probably not going to be the Republican nominee, but he doesn’t need to be the nominee to affect the process. Every delegate he gets is a little more influence over the convention.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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