By Pat Kessler

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio made a campaign stop in Minnesota on Tuesday.

The Florida Senator is one of several candidates visiting the state ahead of the March 1 caucuses. The top GOP candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, are in a tight race for the lead in Iowa, where the first votes will be cast in two weeks.

Rubio is in a distant third among likely caucus voters.

Minnesota is part of a 10-state Super Tuesday contest on March 1 with hundreds of convention delegates at stake.

It’s why top GOP candidates, like Rubio, are showing up in the middle of winter. At a campaign fundraiser in Minneapolis, he said he’ll be spending more time focusing on Minnesota.

“We’re going to be very competitive here,” Rubio said. “This primary (caucus) has now been moved ahead in the cycle. Which means you may very well be the state, or the group of states, who decide who the nominee is.”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is thought to be leading the GOP delegate contest in Minnesota.

He easily won a December straw poll of Minnesota GOP activists over Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump.

“Minnesota has been fly-over country,” Larry Jacobs, a political expert at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said.

Jacobs says for the first time in years, Minnesota’s on the campaign map.

“We’ve either had our caucuses too late, or as last year, too early. This year, we’re right in the thick of things,” he said.

Democrats are watching Minnesota, too.

Thousands of people are showing up at Bernie Sanders rallies. And Hillary Clinton has made multiple Minnesota stops.

Jacobs says more delegates are at stake on March 1 than all the previous 2016 primaries and caucuses put together.

“We could well see the battle that begins to shape the race in both parties over who is going to stand for president,” he said.

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