After years of quiet, relentless organizing, followers of libertarian-leaning GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul have exploded inside the Minnesota Republican Party, becoming its most potent army.
"This is one of the greatest states that I have witnessed, where I have seen the transition, where the enthusiasm's there," the grinning Texas congressman told hundreds of exuberant activists Saturday at the state party's convention in St. Cloud, where he won 12 of 13 open delegate spots to the GOP national convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. The 13th went to former presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann -- and only after a Paul supporter dropped out to let her have that spot.
In Minnesota, more than almost any other state, Paul forces have completed a historic party takeover. They proved their might Saturday, but also firmly established Minnesota as a remote GOP outpost nationally.
Now state GOP activists will march to the national convention firmly backing Paul rather than presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Longtime activists realized Saturday that their party has changed from one that stressed religious values to one focused on ending the Federal Reserve Bank, bringing back the gold standard and bringing about a strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution.
The conflict between the two forces created a tense and anxious crowd.
In front of 2,000 Minnesota Republicans, GOP National Committeeman Jeff Johnson laid out in stark terms the level of anger at the St. Cloud convention.
To "Ron Paul haters," he advised: "Get over it. ... If we don't grow as a party, we die."
To "Ron Paul lovers," he made it clear that longtime GOP activists are angry because they've been displaced. "Some of the anger is from people who have been sitting in those chairs for 20 years or 30 years doing hard work and are not here this year because you are here instead," he said.
Adding to their anger was the belief among some that Paul folks might simply abandon the party once Paul drops out. Johnson advised them: "Don't disappear."
Paul power comes from a sharply different place than the Tea Party movement, which the GOP welcomed just a few years ago. Tea Party members and the libertarian-minded sound similar when they talk of less spending and a dramatically reduced government, but beyond that, they part ways. Libertarians preach less intrusion in private life, question all federal income taxes and want to leave moral issues up to states.
The change also marks a clear split from when state Republicans made "family values" the passport for party entry. Instead of evangelizing about religious principles, Paul disciples cheer for a scaled-back foreign policy and the freedom to drink raw milk and grow hemp.
"They took over, basically. Nobody else was organizing," said Andy Parrish, who used to work for Bachmann and is now helping to manage the campaign for the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "These libertarians don't believe in natural law whatsoever."