ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — After months of being taken for granted as a Democratic lock, Minnesota is getting a fresh burst of attention in the presidential race.
Both sides escalated their efforts Friday, issuing an incessant stream of phone calls and leaving glossy reminders of their candidates on doorknobs. And Republican nominee Mitt Romney and Democratic President Barack Obama are sending their top surrogates — Romney running mate Paul Ryan and former President Bill Clinton — to the state Sunday, energizing volunteers who are working long hours to make sure people remember to vote on Election Day.
"This is the No. 1 thing that people can be doing right now to turn out Republican votes," said Kurt Sorensen, manager of the GOP's Burnsville campaign office. "If they're reminded how important their individual vote is, they'll go out and get out to the polls."
The state is seemingly built for Obama.
At 5.8 percent, unemployment is a full two percentage points beneath the national average. His 10-point win in 2008 was the latest in a Democratic winning streak stretching to 1976. The state GOP has been wracked by internal feuding, deep financial problems and the lack of any statewide officeholder.
But a late incursion by Romney and his allies is forcing Democrats to fight to keep reliable turf and 10 electoral votes in Obama's column.
"I've been saying along to anyone who would listen that Minnesota is a must-win state for the president and elections are close in Minnesota," said Obama's state director, Jeff Blodgett. "It's just the nature of the electorate here."
While Romney has made only a token investment in advertising, groups on his side have pumped millions into Minnesota since the summer to soften the ground. Two conservative political action committees said they would spend more than $1 million each in the final week alone. Their commercials had gone unchecked until Obama's campaign moved in with a heavy infusion of ads.
Blodgett said Obama has spent years cultivating the state with campaign house parties, phone banks and neighborhood canvasses. His campaign has a dozen offices around Minnesota whose staff and volunteers are either on the telephone or knocking on doors.
Jim Niland, who heads the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's voter turnout operation, said that effort got under way this year about 10 days earlier than usual. DFL volunteers had reached more than a quarter-million voters by Thursday.
He said DFL volunteers had phoned more than 286,000 people and knocked on more than 83,000 doors statewide, saying the DFL base was "extremely strong."
Until recently, Romney supporters who wanted a sign had to head across the border. These days, it costs only one volunteer shift in a GOP campaign office. The state GOP has shouldered the load, opening up 40 so-called victory centers that officials say are on pace to exceed a million voter calls. The state House Republican caucus expected to knock on 400,000 doors by Tuesday.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge said he thinks the significance of Obama's vaunted turnout machine is overstated at a time when economic anxiety remains high and independent voters are willing to give Romney a late look.
"You can have the world's finest sales force but if you have a lousy product you still got a lousy product and people aren't going to buy it," Shortridge said.
Some Democrats have voiced concern privately that Obama is struggling in northeastern Minnesota, a stronghold given its high union membership. But it's also home to many white, male, working-class voters who have trended strongly in Romney's direction elsewhere.
So Obama's team is playing to the president's strengths: It stresses the administration's efforts to rescue the auto industry — enormous amounts of Minnesota-mined taconite become steel car doors and hoods. In Duluth, wind energy is the buzzword because of the massive turbines that move through its Lake Superior port.
Romney's ads in Minnesota play up the former Massachusetts governor's accomplishments alongside that state's Democratic legislature as a contrast to Obama's difficulty in working with GOP congressional members.
Neither candidate has spent much time courting Minnesota voters, though both have stopped in for campaign cash.
Vice President Joe Biden last visited in August; he held a campaign rally just across the border in Superior, Wis., on Friday. Ryan gave an airport tarmac wave and made an impromptu stop at a St. Paul restaurant Tuesday, the same day that Clinton visited Minneapolis and Duluth.