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Published March 05, 2012, 07:15 PM

GOP's Paul Focuses on ND in Quest for 1st Victory

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — In a state that typically receives more in federal spending than it pays in taxes, unabashed small-government cheerleader Ron Paul has done the most campaigning, drawn the largest crowds and attracted the biggest share of political donations among Republican presidential candidates.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — In a state that typically receives more in federal spending than it pays in taxes, unabashed small-government cheerleader Ron Paul has done the most campaigning, drawn the largest crowds and attracted the biggest share of political donations among Republican presidential candidates.

Paul's best chance for his first 2012 victory may come Tuesday in North Dakota, which is holding party caucuses at more than 50 locations, including private homes, cafes, fire halls and the Bismarck Civic Center, where North Dakota Republicans will hold their state convention later this month.

His caucus-centric strategy is no secret. His staffers have long acknowledged he isn't likely to topple front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in direct voting setups such as primaries. But caucuses, which generally are meetings open to all registered party voters, tend to draw more dedicated voters, partly because the process is more drawn out. Decided voters attempt to court the undecided to back their candidate. And Paul supporters are famously dedicated.

Up to now, his best showings have come in Iowa and Maine — states that use caucuses.

Paul is even planning a last-minute trip to North Dakota Tuesday night to speak at the Fargo Republican caucuses, which will include activists representing 10 of the state's 47 legislative districts.

The congressman's supporters insist North Dakota's caucus system isn't the only thing that makes Paul a good fit in rural, sparsely populated North Dakota. They cite his promotion of the energy industry, his criticism of rising federal debt and his opposition to abortion as reasons he is resonating in the traditionally tightfisted, socially conservative state.

One of Paul's supporters is Paul Maloney, director of the North Dakota Right to Life Association, the state's most prominent anti-abortion group.

"He's the only presidential candidate who has a plan for our nation's debt crisis," said Paul Sorum, a Fargo architect and Republican candidate for governor who has endorsed Paul. "If we keep increasing this country's debt, it's going to cause an economic meltdown like we've never seen before."

While Paul has focused on North Dakota, the other GOP candidates have made few visits, and none from Newt Gingrich. Mitt Romney made a brief stop last week, campaigning at a Fargo commercial heating, air conditioning and boiler service business owned by the family of Drew Wrigley, North Dakota's GOP lieutenant governor. Rick Santorum has campaigned in Fargo and Tioga, a community in northwestern North Dakota's bustling oil-producing region.

One potential obstacle for a Paul victory is the state's dependence on federal aid. The Tax Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., says the state has regularly received a greater share of federal spending than its residents have paid in taxes.

North Dakota ranked seventh among the 50 states in farm subsidy and disaster relief payments over 15 years, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington organization.

Paul's free-market philosophies also clash with some aspects of North Dakota's populist culture, which has been friendlier to government programs and intervention in the economy.

The state still has two socialist institutions, a state-owned bank in Bismarck and a flour mill and grain elevator in Grand Forks, which were founded almost a century ago by farmers who were trying to combat what they regarded as oppressive banking, grain and milling interests.

Still, Paul's appeals for cutting federal spending and drastically scaling back the nation's military commitments — in Bismarck, Paul repeated his advocacy for cutting $1 trillion from the federal budget — have won praise in North Dakota.

"You can't be the world police anymore ... if you don't have any money," said Nathan Svihovec, 23, of Watford City, in western North Dakota's oil-producing region. "Right now, we're hurting, and we've got to fix ourselves before we can get back to that."

Four years ago on Super Tuesday 2008, Romney easily won North Dakota's GOP caucuses, getting 36 percent of the vote in a five-candidate field. Although Paul was third, with 21 percent, he fared better in North Dakota than he did in almost all of the 20 other states that held Republican primaries or caucuses that day.

This year, Romney has endorsements from Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, who like Romney is a former governor, and a group of GOP state officials and legislators.

However, Paul has campaigned most widely, drawing almost 3,000 people over two days during stops in Williston, Dickinson, Bismarck and Jamestown late last month.

Paul's state headquarters, tucked into a small Bismarck office across the street from the city's federal courthouse, has been running for almost four months. Matt Becker, the North Dakota Republican Party's communications director, said Paul's North Dakota operation has been the most extensive of any of the four GOP candidates.

Romney's Fargo headquarters opened last week. Gingrich and Santorum have no North Dakota presence, although Bismarck businessman Gary Emineth, a former state GOP chairman, is serving as head of Santorum's North Dakota campaign.

Paul's presidential campaign has collected more than $50,000 of the $152,000 in North Dakota contributions reported so far, Federal Election Commission disclosure reports say.

His North Dakota total is greater than President Barack Obama, whose re-election campaign has drawn almost $32,000 in reported North Dakota donations, and Gingrich, his nearest Republican rival, who has received more than $16,000. Romney has received about $8,400 in North Dakota donations, while Santorum has about $5,400.

While Paul's chances of a North Dakota victory Tuesday may be greater than those in any other state, some are skeptical he will win. Mark Jendrysik, a University of North Dakota political science professor, believes Romney may prevail again in what he calls a "status-quo state."

However, Jendrysik said the race was difficult to handicap. There have been no independent public opinion polls and little North Dakota advertising in the run-up to the caucuses. Four years ago, fewer than 10,000 people voted.

"Ron Paul does have a certain following," Jendrysik said. "And you have no polls, you have no data. I haven't seen a single commercial from any of the candidates. It's hard to gauge the level of enthusiasm."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.