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Santorum, who visited Bemidji two days ago, wins GOP presidential straw poll in Minnesota

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ST. PAUL -- Rick Santorum appeared to be the winner of Minnesota's Republican presidential caucus straw poll Tuesday night.

National news media began to project him the winner at 9:30 p.m.

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He also won a Tuesday primary in Missouri, his first victory since taking the Iowa caucuses a month ago.

In a mixture of returns from across Minnesota, Santorum earned 45 percent of those taking part in the nonbinding straw poll with 31 percent of precincts reporting.

Minnesota Republicans put Mitt Romney in third place, four years after he easily won the straw poll in a record-setting caucus turnout.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was behind Santorum with 27 percent, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Romney with 17 percent and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia with 11 percent.

Reports from around the state indicated good attendance, but it did not appear to be the 60,000-plus that attended four years ago.

The caucuses awarded no delegates, like Tuesday's Colorado caucuses and Missouri's primary election. But with a split decision in the presidential contest so far, the candidates needed something to trumpet.

National media outlets declared Santorum the winner in Missouri with more than half of the vote. Romney ran second and Paul was third. Gingrich did not run in Missouri.

Colorado's first votes showed Santorum leading, but Romney was expected to do well.

In west-central Minnesota, Traverse was the first county to report all of its precincts and Santorum collected 48 percent of the votes, with Romney and Gingrich tying at 18 percent and Paul trailing with 16 percent.

In southwest Minnesota's Lincoln County, Paul and Santorum tied with 19 votes each.

Santorum campaign official Chuck Laudner, in St. Paul, said no state is a "must win," but campaigns are looking to "continue to grow your base."

After a delayed win in Iowa, Santorum has built up his campaign coffers, Laudner said, so he can compete in states where he needs money to buy television commercials.

All four GOP hopefuls made Minnesota stops in the past few days after all but ignoring the state earlier.

Santorum spoke in Blaine, north of Minneapolis, Tuesday afternoon, urging Minnesota Republicans to not "settle for second best." He told supporters that Romney may have a lot of money in his campaign, but he is not inspiring.

The ex-senator won the last month's Iowa caucuses, after a recount, but a lack of money kept him from being as competitive in the following caucuses and primaries.

Romney leads the race nationally after several primary and caucus wins, but he is not the conservatives' favorite.

The GOP presidential delegate count stands at Romney, 101; Gingrich, 32; Santorum, 17; and Paul, nine, with 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination.

In Eagan last week, Romney attacked President Barack Obama, but did not mention his GOP opponents by name. He compared their long government tenures to his business background.

Gingrich is the second-place candidate nationally, but polls show he carries high unfavorable marks.

The former speaker has been relentless in his attacks on Romney, in particular. In a Bloomington speech Monday night, he compared himself to Ronald Reagan.

The only candidate staying in Minnesota after the caucuses is Paul, who attended Coon Rapids and Maple Grove caucuses in the northwestern Twin Cities area before attending a post-caucus rally in Golden Valley.

Paul spent the most time in Minnesota before the caucuses, hoping to make the state his first win. He finished fourth four years ago.

The latest polls showed Santorum the leading Minnesota candidate, and the other three bunched up.

The Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday put Santorum at 33 percent, Romney at 24 percent, Gingrich at 22 percent and Paul at 20 percent.

Since none of the three Tuesday events carried any delegates with them, many national commentators -- and some in Minnesota -- questioned their importance.

"Breathless anticipation builds 4 tonight's straw poll contest which has no value and is non-binding in the selection of the next President," state Rep. Pat "Garofalo, R-Farmington, tweeted Tuesday afternoon.

Nate Silver of The New York Times wrote Tuesday that the Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri contests "provide an important test of how robust Mitt Romney's coalition is on less favorable terrain than in states like New Hampshire or Nevada. And they could potentially revitalize the campaign of one of Mr. Romney's opponents, Rick Santorum."

The Republican National Committee even distributed a news release pointing out none of Tuesday's three contests awarded delegates.

Commentators who say Minnesota and Colorado caucuses are important point to the fact that they are similar to Iowa's process, which always gains international attend for months.

Minnesota GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge said his office has talked to international media, and national media have reported on the state caucuses.

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