MANKATO, Minnesota (Reuters) - For Republicans and Mitt Romney, Minnesota is looking like the state that might have been.
It was long a fly-over state for presidential candidates - not worth a visit, since it voted reliably Democrat. After strong gains in 2010 midterm elections, though, conservatives thought they had a real chance to change that.
Instead, the Republican Party finds itself divided and uninspired in Minnesota, a state that underscores the uphill battle Romney faces as he tries to rally conservatives in many parts of the country before the November presidential election.
It’s a far cry from neighboring Wisconsin, where earlier this month Republican Governor Scott Walker scored an important victory in a tough recall election launched by unions. That was seen as laying the groundwork for Romney to take a state that has not gone for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984.
Walker’s win also showed what it takes to unite today’s fractious Republican Party, conservative insurgent Tea Party activists and deep-pocketed donors: a champion (Walker), a common cause (fiscal conservatism) and a common enemy (unions).
But while conservatives have a common enemy in Democratic President Barack Obama and have accepted Romney as the Republican nominee, many do not yet see the former governor of Massachusetts as their champion.
“I want Barack gone,” said Jason Dahlquist, 33, a school bus driver in Minnesota and volunteer for Kurt Bills, a freshman state representative and high school economics teacher who is the long-shot Republican running against first-term Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.
When asked about Romney, however, Dahlquist pauses.
“I don’t have nice things to say about Mitt,” is his eventual response. “In Wisconsin, they had a real champion in Walker. If I had a champion like that at the national level I’d be volunteering for him instead.”
Attending a Republican picnic in Mankato, a college town of 40,000 in south central Minnesota, Dahlquist gestures toward Bills, the libertarian-leaning Senate candidate, and says, “This is my champion. This is the best I’ve got.”
Conservatives see Romney as too moderate, and Republican strategists say that to unite and ignite the GOP base across America he needs a bold, Walker-like reform agenda.
Much like Wisconsin, Minnesota is a longtime Democratic-leaning state that swung sharply to the right in 2010 with help from Tea Party and other grassroots conservative activists. With a unified approach, a clear message and a solid candidate, political analysts say, Republicans might just have had a shot at taking Klobuchar’s Senate seat, and possibly even turning the state red in November.
But there have been a series of missteps, including a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage pushed by social conservatives that is opposed by liberals and Lutherans. (Lutherans make up a quarter of the state’s population.) That, combined with bitter infighting between conservative Republican factions, means the party is sharply divided and now has a largely unknown Senate candidate polling 26 points behind Klobuchar. This has also helped to give Obama a 15-point lead over Romney in Minnesota.
In 2010, Minnesota Republicans rode a wave of anger at President Obama’s signature healthcare reform, taking the state House of Representatives and, for the first time since the early 1970s, the state Senate. They fell just short of electing a Republican governor.
The new majority sparred often with Democratic Governor Mark Dayton over spending - as Republicans have with President Obama in Washington - forcing an unpopular three-week government shutdown in July 2011.
Tea Party activists say Republicans have been too timid.
“Republicans seem more concerned about maintaining their majority than real change,” said Walter Hudson of the North Star Tea Party Patriots, a coalition of Minnesota groups.
As at the national level, Republicans are divided. Moderates sided with Democrats on some issues, such as $348 million in taxpayer aid for a Minnesota Vikings football stadium.
Some moderates accustomed to bipartisanship and compromise are retiring, as Maine Republican U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe is doing. Or, like Minnesota Deputy Senate Majority Leader Julianne Ortman, they face primary challenges.
Many Republicans simply fail new ideological purity tests, said David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. “The moderate Republican Party is just being pushed out,” he said.
Many conservatives say choosing a moderate Republican, Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain, cost them dearly in 2008. They have no alternative to Romney this time, but he is unlikely to benefit from the kind of fired-up activists who went door-to-door for Walker in Wisconsin.
A Romney campaign official said the Republican presidential nominee has produced many fiscally conservative proposals, including one that calls for reducing federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product to under 20 percent from 24.3 percent in 2010, and plans to build on that message.
Jeff Thomas, a welder in North Mankato, is a firm Romney supporter who worries that without unity, all is lost.
“I do think we will lose the election to President Obama if we don’t become unified,” he said.
Romney and Obama are currently polling within a few points of each other nationally, with the economy weighing on the incumbent’s popularity.
Minnesota’s Republican factions include social conservatives and a strong libertarian contingent backing Texas Representative and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Paul’s supporters so dominated Minnesota’s Republican convention in May that U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, a social conservative who sought her party’s presidential nomination, was almost excluded from the state’s delegation to the national convention in August. Many in the audience booed when Romney’s name was mentioned.
The fraught convention selected Bills to face Klobuchar, a popular incumbent with $5.1 million on hand at a time when the state Republican Party is bankrupt.
Bills favors a budget plan from Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son, which proponents say would balance the budget in five years through massive spending cuts.
Lawrence Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, says the nominating Bills made Klobuchar’s “as safe a race as any in the country.”
Even so, local Democrats aren’t taking any chances.
Ken Martin, chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (as Minnesota Democrats are known), said the party is mindful of the 2010 defeat of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold by conservative businessman Ron Johnson.
Klobuchar is “going to run her race like she is 20 points behind,” he said.
Reporting By Nick Carey; editing by Claudia Parsons and Douglas Royalty