ST. PAUL -- While they won't be as flashy as ''Super Tuesday'' presidential primaries elsewhere, Minnesota's upcoming precinct caucuses will be every bit as important, party leaders say.
''In this state the grass roots control everything, regular people. That's why it's so superior to the primary,'' GOP executive director Tony Sutton said.
DFL state Chairman Mike Erlandson said, ''Obviously the caucus is about a lot more than the presidential race. It's the U.S. Senate race. It's where people get elected to endorse for other races.''
And Reform Party Chairman Rick McCluhan said, ''It's really the starting point of the political process. This is where you do really get the opportunity to enlighten yourself.''
Those who question the importance of the Minnesota caucuses need only look to the state's two U.S. senators for inspiration. Both Republican Sen. Rod Grams and Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone came up through the process, starting with neither money nor name recognition, a point Sutton emphasized.
''It's not just a bunch of fat cats in Minnetonka picking who the candidates will be,'' Sutton said. ''It's not a popularity contest on who has the most name ID. It's about who can connect to the grass roots.''
Minnesota Republicans will conduct caucuses and a nonbinding presidential straw poll on Tuesday.
The Reform Party plans to caucus Tuesday regardless of whether members agree to a name change or break with the national party Saturday. McCluhan wants to conduct a presidential straw poll of all candidates, although a push is expected to include only Reform Party candidates.
Most DFL caucuses will be on Saturday, March 11, with the rest on Sunday, March 12. DFLers plan to conduct a binding presidential preference poll, meaning delegates will be bound to the candidate the party chooses.
The Minnesota action will be a national footnote, occurring either on or after ''Super Tuesday,'' when 15 other states and a U.S. territory hold political contests. Up for grabs are 613 delegates for the Republicans and 1,315 for the Democrats -- roughly 60 percent of the support needed to seal the nominations.
California offers the most delegates. The Republican winner-take-all contest will allocate 162 delegates. The Democrats, who in each state assign delegates proportionally based on votes, will allocate 367 delegates.
In contrast, Minnesota offers 34 Republican delegates and 91 for the DFL, but they won't truly be divvied up Tuesday.
The poll of Minnesota Republicans will give an indication of where activists stand, but the delegates will be free to vote as they choose at the summer convention.
Most of the DFL delegates will be bound to vote at the convention for the candidates the activists choose in the weekend preference poll. It's not a winner-take-all contest so delegates will be distributed in proportion to votes received.
Only 14 DFL ''super delegates'' can vote as they choose at the summer convention. The super delegates are elected officials, party leaders, Democratic National Committee members and former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who has endorsed Vice President Gore.
What happens with Reform Party delegates hinges on whether the party votes to disaffiliate.
The DFL and GOP parties will conduct more than 4,000 precinct meetings. The Reform Party expects to convene about 100.
Sutton is hoping for turnout of 45,000, which would be up 10,000 from the 1996 and 1998 caucuses. The party is running radio and newspaper ads to boost turnout. Erlandson is hoping for a rebound from the all-time low of 16,000 in 1998. Before that, attendance hovered near 30,000. McCluhan hopes for a few thousand, up from 1,000 in 1998.
To find out how to attend the caucuses, call a county auditor or contact the parties.
DFLers can call (651) 293-1200 or 1-800-999-7457 or visit www.dfl.org.
Reform Party members can call (507) 387-2657 or visit www.reform-mn.org.
Republicans can call (651) 222-0022 or visit www.mngop.com.
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