MINNEAPOLIS -- Sarah Palin added excitement to the Minnesota Republican convention Thursday night by endorsing Tom Emmer for governor.
"A patriotic fiscally conservative 'hockey dad' who got his start in politics by serving on his local city councils is running for governor of the great state of Minnesota," Palin wrote on her Facebook page Thursday afternoon. "His name is Tom Emmer, and I'm proud to support him."
Emmer was thrilled.
"The gold standard of grassroots politics" is how Emmer described Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate.
In general, GOP delegates said the conservative star's endorsement probably would not sway their decision today as they decide between Emmer and fellow state Rep. Marty Seifert.
Emmer was mobbed by supporters and surrounded in the hours after the Palin posted her support on Facebook. Seifert's life was quieter before the convention started.
About 2,010 delegates filed into the Minneapolis Convention Center Thursday night to endorse other state candidates, but they left no doubt today's governor contest is the main event.
Seifert and Emmer pledge to follow the today's convention decision, unlike Democratic candidates Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza, who are challenging their DFL endorsee Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
Besides the two leaders, a trio of long-shot candidates also will be nominated today.
The Palin comment was the talk of the convention Thursday night.
Emmer and Palin held a private meeting when the former Alaska governor visited Minneapolis recently.
"Coming from a working class background, Tom is known as a straight-talker who is unafraid of taking on the challenge of reining in the size and scope of government," Palin wrote. "A proud father of seven, Tom is in this race for the right reasons -- to provide bold, principled leadership that will leave Minnesota fiscally stronger for the next generation."
Democrats immediately criticized an out-of-state politician for getting involved in a Minnesota campaign.
Kelliher, a self-proclaimed hockey mom, Tweeted: "Lots of hockey in this race for governor! Palin endorsement a goal or checking from behind?" Emmer is a former hockey player.
Most delegates did not know of the Palin move until they arrived at the convention.
"I have to think about it," said Moorhead City Councilman Mark Hintermeyer, a Republican delegate. "I don't think I have digested that yet."
"It is such a close call," Hintermeyer said about the Seifert-Emmer race.
Others have made up their minds.
For Nancy Evans of Cass County, Seifert was the pick. But, she said, had she been behind Emmer, she would have switched to Seifert after Palin got involved.
Her husband, Lorus, said that he was "sort of, kind of, almost" behind Seifert.
Jan and Merle Larson of Cannon Falls wore Emmer buttons.
"He votes what he says," Jan Larson said. Seifert? "Not so much."
The Larsons, both first-time convention delegates, are Tea Party followers, supporting limited government and lower taxes.
Jan Larson said she felt she either had to stop complaining or get involved, and "I'm not good at shutting up."
GOP Party Chairman Tony Sutton said big-name endorsements sometimes help, but sometimes they backfire. He did not know how the Facebook posting would affect the convention, with half of the delegates new to the process.
Seifert said that the Palin fuss means little. The Marshall lawmaker called himself "an underdog farm boy," like he has been in past elections.
Seifert's campaign was calling delegates from around Minnesota to convince them to make the trip to Minneapolis and offer him their support. Calling the team of Emmer and Annette Meeks an all-Twin Cities ticket, Seifert said it is vital to get rural Republicans to Minneapolis.
Emmer would not say if the Palin backing would help him, but called it "a very significant endorsement."
"I think a lot of these are Sarah Palin fans," he said of the delegates.
Regardless of who wins today, GOP officials claim the party will be united.
"I'm about party unity," Michael Boulton of Wanamingo said.
Boulton would not say who he supports, but those who did publically back a candidate said they would support the winner.
Emmer, 49, has served in the Minnesota House since 2005. He is a lawyer and is known for frequently taking on conservative causes on the House floor. Emmer lives in Delano, in the extreme western Twin Cities area and is a Tea Party favorite.
Seifert, 38, comes from southwest Minnesota's Marshall, where he was a teacher and a university admissions counselor. He comes from more of the Republican mainstream and was House Republican leader until he left the job last year to run for governor.
The Emmer-Seifert race took a turn for the nasty a few weeks ago when Emmer's two drunken driving convictions decades ago became a hot topic because he had worked for law changes that some said would benefit him.
As delegates headed to the Minneapolis convention, Emmer's wife came to his defense.
"Enough is enough," Jacquie Emmer wrote to Republicans. "Over the past nine months I have proudly and quietly supported my husband Tom as he's gone from a long-shot bid for governor to the verge of victory. ... He says what he means and means what he says."
But she complained about what she called mud being thrown at her husband as he is "on the verge of victory." The latest, she said, are talks that he is not pure anti-abortion.
"I can't stay quiet anymore," she said. "The latest attacks suggesting that Tom isn't 'pro-life' are disgusting and untrue. Tom has never taken a bad 'pro-life vote.'"
She said she has lost her respect for Seifert, and said the couple has had to explain to their seven children about what she calls dirty attacks.
The abortion issue arose, in part, because Seifert's campaign alleged that Emmer switched running mates when an anti-abortion group black-balled his first pick because of one vote it did not agree with years ago. That expected running mate was former Sen. Linda Runbeck.
Emmer would not discuss whether he had planned to run with Runbeck, but on Tuesday he announced GOP insider Annette Meeks as his lieutenant governor candidate.
In the days leading up to the convention, rumblings increased that Emmer was headed to a first-ballot victory (in contrast, Gov. Tim Pawlenty needed 12 ballots that stretched until 3 a.m. when he beat Brian Sullivan in 2002).
Seifert refuses to accept Emmer's quick victory.
"If you are not involved, you don't know who the delegates are," Seifert said. "It is competitive. It is not a type of one-ballot thing."
"There is a chunk of delegates that are undecided, unknowns, who are going to decide this thing," Seifert added.
By Seifert's reckoning, a little more than a third of the delegates are in the U.S. Rep. Ron Paul camp, those who often are thought of to be Tea Party supporters of limited government and taxes. They may be more likely to pick a candidate based on ideology than on winning the general election, Seifert said.
Most Tea Party delegates likely favor Emmer. Seifert tends to attract more traditional Republicans.
The last two-person GOP contest was the Pawlenty-Sullivan battle in 2002. It looked a lot like this year's fight.
Sullivan promoted himself as the conservative of the two, saying Pawlenty was too moderate. Sullivan won the first ballot, but not by enough to win the endorsement. Pawlenty came back to take a second-ballot lead and gradually increased it through a dozen votes.
Emmer and Seifert are not the only candidates, but are the only ones anyone thinks has a chance to be endorsed.
Also in the race are Robert Carney Jr., who tags himself a moderate progressive Republican; Bill Haas, a former suburban mayor and state representative; Phil Herwig, a Republican who considers himself more conservative than current Gov. Tim Pawlenty; and Leslie Davis, an environmentalist and perennial losing candidate.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.