Lincoln Day closing banquet overshadowed by Ron Paul
Even as Republican organizers touted the Missouri Lincoln Days weekend as a huge success, Saturday night vividly illustrated the internal challenges and splits looming with the GOP ranks -- especially over the next few weeks.
About 350 people, many of them older party veterans, gathered in the ballroom for the closing-night banquet featuring Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a party up-and-comer believed to be on this year's short list for vice president -- especially if the presidential nominee is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who McDonnell supports.
The crowd was markedly smaller than Friday night's audience. But more significantly, a much larger -- and generally younger crowd -- gathered just a block away to enthusiastically greet a much older politician and Romney rival: Ron Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas who is making his second run for the White House.
Most of the reporters and TV cameras, who spent Saturday at Lincoln Days, had defected that night to cover Paul as well.
Paul and McDonnell espoused many of the same conservative views, especially on economic and social issues. Still, Paul's ability to energize young followers may play a more immediate role in the state's political future -- even if so far, Paul has only one declared supporter among Missouri's officeholders: state Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific.
Curtman had skipped the Lincoln Days closing banquet to, instead, introduce Paul to the crowd at Kansas City's Union Station.
Ron Paul's supporters say they expect him to make more visits to Missouri before most of the state's caucuses begin March 17. That multi-month process will determine how the state's 52 Republican presidential delegates are awarded.
Meanwhile, the presidential hopeful who swept Missouri's Feb. 7 non-binding Republican primary -- former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum -- also is planning to soon return to Missouri. His daughter, Elizabeth Santorum, stopped by Lincoln Days on Saturday afternoon to mingle with the crowd and emphasize that her father will make a serious bid for caucus support.
Two St. Louis area Republicans who back Santorum -- Connie Eller and Zina Hackworth -- were spotted carrying armloads of his yard signs to their car, to transport back home and distribute.
As for Romney, word was circulating during Lincoln Days that he was expected to make his first public campaign stop in Missouri after Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states are slated to hold their primaries or caucuses.
Romney has the bulk of high-profile backers in Missouri, including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. -- who introduced McDonnell at Saturday night's banquet. Blunt declared that this fall's presidential election would likely be crucial in determining the direction of the nation.
But perhaps mindful of some differences within his party's ranks, Blunt didn't mention Romney or Paul.
McDonnell didn't either.
Caucus dates may differ
Most of Missouri's first-stage caucus sessions will be held on March 17. But Republican leaders in the city of St. Louis are being allowed to hold their caucus a week later, on March 24.
A state party spokesman said that the city of St. Louis was allowed to delay its caucus because of the city's traditionally huge St. Patrick's Day parade on March 17.
As a result of decisions by the state GOP committee this weekend, St. Louis County Republicans will hold their caucuses on March 17. The county -- by far the state's largest-- also got permission to hold a caucus in each of its 28 townships. So there will be 28 caucus sites in St. Louis County on March 17.