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Minnesota's Democratic caucus 'too tight to tell' before Tuesday

Trixy Barnes, center, of Ramsey asks a question about different levels of caucuses at a precinct caucus workshop following Secretary of State Steve Simon's address on the state of voting and elections, Thursday February 25, 2016, at Wellstone Center at Neighborhood House in St. Paul. She is a retired schoolteacher who taught gifted ed and U.S. Government and said, "we just moved from a primary state, Oklahoma." (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

 On Tuesday, Minnesota Democrats will hand either high school student Jamie Halper or nurse Amy Jacobson a reward for their weeks of effort.

Halper, a fan of Hillary Clinton, and Jacobson, a supporter of Bernie Sanders, have spent their spare time on phones and on the street wooing would-be Minnesota attendees to the March 1 caucus.

The Minnesota contest, set for 4,000 precincts across the state this week, has given both women reason for hope and their favored campaigns reason to invest heavily in the state.

"I think that Hillary Clinton is building a better organization here. But I think that Bernie Sanders has more organic support so the question is how does that manifest itself on caucus night," said Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chair Ken Martin. "Right now, it's just too tight to tell."

Unlike the Republican candidates, who will also vie in caucuses Tuesday, the Democratic candidates have spent considerable time and treasure in Minnesota. The candidates have each visited multiple times. Both have had paid staffers in the state for months and built up armies of organizing staff, communications experts and volunteers to ply their political wares.

The two remaining Democratic contestants are jousting in paid television ads on Minnesota airwaves, have opened field offices across the state and have deployed their volunteers to phones, to the doors and to the hustings. Each candidates' campaign has spent about $200,000 in the state, according to the latest campaign finance reports, and those figures do not include the ad spending that has ramped up this month.

Clinton's connections

With recollections of Clinton's poor showing in Minnesota eight years ago — now-President Barack Obama bested her at the 2008 caucuses nearly 2-1 — the former secretary of state's campaign has worked to learn from its mistakes.

On a recent warm February evening, dozens of supporters gathered in a Minneapolis Linden Hills home armed with cellphones, urging Minnesotans to support Clinton. For host Judy Schermer, the mass of phone-wielding volunteers — leaning on kitchen counters, curled up on the couch, gathered around the dining room table — was a familiar site.

For nearly three months, Schermer has invited Clinton supporters to sprawl all over her home twice a week. Before Clinton narrowly won the Iowa caucus, they'd spend half their time calling into that state. Now, they are focused squarely on Minnesota.

The support is a sign of strength, not settling, she said.

"We get annoyed that people say there is no enthusiasm, because there is great enthusiasm. Or, they say, people are choosing between their head and their hearts. We think we are using our head and our hearts," said the retired attorney and grandmother who shares her home with two cats.

They are not alone. With political celebrity guests, including Clinton's daughter Chelsea Clinton, Gov. Mark Dayton, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock and others, the Minnesota effort has been long and vast.

Halper, a St. Louis Park High School student and Clinton supporter, did not need those local references to win her support.

"I've really spent my entire life looking up to Hillary. From the time I was a little kid, she always was a role model to me," said the Golden Valley teen. "She can really be a candidate for anyone; all of her issues are things that can benefit for anyone. No one is losing out from her policies."

Sanders' storm

Sanders, a Vermont senator, does not have Clinton's long connections to Minnesota but may have made up for it in vigor from fans.

Starting with a packed Minneapolis rally in May, repeated in massive January rallies and capped off with a Friday visit to Hibbing, Sanders has attracted the biggest political crowds Minnesota has seen this year.

"It was really inspiring. I think it really kind of solidified our thoughts that Bernie really has a chance to win this thing," Brainerd voter Abra Hawley said after seeing Sanders barnstorm in front of 14,500 supporters in St. Paul last month.

On a recent morning just 10 days before caucus day, dozens of Sanders supporters streamed into the lobby of his St. Paul headquarters on University Avenue to turn that vigor into votes.

After a brief check-in, the volunteers settled in for detailed instructions from former Iowa organizer and University of Minnesota graduate Justin Henry.

"I've never seen anything like what Sen. Sanders is doing," Henry told volunteer door-knockers before he sent them out to reach undecided voters.

Jacobson, the nurse from Mahtomedi, feels passionately enough about Sanders that she made calls to woo supporters, even though she hates talking on the phone, and plans on being a caucus captain for him, even though she's never attended a caucus before.

"He's not, 'Vote for me, vote for me, I want to be president.' He's, 'You should get involved for your benefit,' " she said. She brushes off critics who say Sanders would never achieve his goals, even if he won. "No change comes easy and you are not going to effect change without aiming high."

The unknown

With few polls and a deeply unsettled race, the caucus date will arrive with little clarity on who will win.

Those who make their livings based on the caucus aren't even sure how many people will turn out.

"It'll be more than one and less than a million," joked Robert Dempsey, Sanders' Minnesota director and a former staffer at three state Democratic parties.

Martin, a Clinton supporter, said repeatedly last week that he did not know how many Democrats would show up Tuesday before settling on a guess: somewhere between 150,000 and 175,000 DFLers will attend.

Asked how Clinton would do in Minnesota, Dayton last week offered few predictions.

"I can't say," said the governor, who has studied Minnesota politics for 40 years. "I think it will probably be close."