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Minnesota Senate candidacy at stake as party animals gather on Saturday

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The Feb. 5 caucus may have marked the end of campaigning by Democratic presidential candidates in Minnesota for their party's nomination, but it was just the first hurdle in the race to gain the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's endorsement for U.S. Senate.

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The next leg comes in the months leading up to the party's state convention in June, when county units and state Senate districts hold conventions of their own. Senate District 7, which encompasses most of Duluth, holds its convention Saturday at Denfeld High School.

About 800 delegates and alternates elected at the city's precinct caucuses will convene to elect new leadership, consider endorsements for the Legislature, adopt party platform resolutions and cull their numbers to 22.

Those select few will continue on to the state convention and cast their votes for attorney Mike Ciresi, St. Thomas University professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer or former comedian and talk show host Al Franken.

Jon Schwetman, chairman of the 7th District DFL, said delegates will use a subcaucus system like the one made famous in Iowa to express their preferences for Senate candidate.

Once the process is finished and the newly elected delegates pledge support for the person they think best suited to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman in November, it would be hard for them to change that vote afterward, he said.

"It's kind of dramatic," Schwetman said.

Local organizers for each of the three candidates will be out in force at Saturday's convention in hopes of persuading delegates oscillating between candidates to join their camp for good.

Some attempts in that vein have already been made: Both Franken and Nelson-Pallmeyer have hosted house parties in Duluth in recent weeks, and Ciresi has been phoning and e-mailing delegates.

Ciresi spokeswoman Leslie Sandberg denied speculation that Ciresi's recent $2 million donation to his own campaign means he is planning to break the promise all candidates made to abide by the official DFL nomination.

Staying competitive was the only motivation behind the donation, she said.

"We expect a competitive day on Saturday," Sandberg said.

Franken's communications director, Andy Barr, said Saturday will be the Senate race's equivalent to Super Tuesday, with 17 local units holding conventions after a spattering of meetings held in February.

"It will be a real test of organizational strength," he said. "Field directors and organizers can't be at each one. It will be really interesting to see what happens."

All precinct delegates and alternates should have received a "Call to Convention" notice detailing their commitment at the end of last week, Schwetman said, but he expects some will fail to show up Saturday for one reason or another.

"We never fill up the delegate roster for each precinct," he said. "We always anticipate a lower turnout."

Schwetman said he hopes the chaos that plagued caucus night will be absent Saturday but made no promises.

"We're going to do our darnedest to make sure everyone has a positive experience and has a chance to contribute views," he said. "Some people may think they're delegates and find out they're not. We're going to correct problems as fast as we can."

The 7th District Republican Party also will hold its conventions Saturday. District 7A will meet at noon in the Radisson Hotel's Viking Room. District 7B will meet at 1 p.m. at American Legion Post 71, at 5814 Grand Ave.

This year's hotly contested Senate race has already been decided for the Republicans, with incumbent Norm Coleman making another run.

In the absence of a hot-ticket item like the Senate endorsement, Republicans will spend their time Saturday sorting through party resolutions and choosing delegates to represent the district at the congressional district and state levels.

District 7A chairwoman Carinda Horton said her district is expecting more people than ever to show up on Saturday.

"Our preregistration shows numbers already surpassing the numbers that have attended in past years," she said. "Even the narrowing of the presidential election hasn't limited the participation of the public."

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