ST. LOUIS PARK, MINN. — In the shade of a backyard gazebo, supporters of Republican US Senate candidate Bert McKasy sip lemonade and dig into strawberry shortcake. Blue and white balloons bobble around McKasy campaign signs as a band in red vests at the edge of the lawn strikes up Dixieland tunes.
For the GOP in Minnesota, the primary race to choose the challenger for a Democrat-held Senate seat might seem like a summertime jubilee. It isn't.
Beneath the garden-party air, deep cracks in the GOP's own political terrain seem to stretch beyond the September primary, even to the November election.
Like elsewhere in the US, the GOP in Minnesota is split between "fiscal" and "social" conservatives. Republican advocates of lower taxes and less government economic intrusion rub up against party opponents of gun control and abortion.
In Minnesota, however, the wrangle has been especially protracted and intense. Strife within the state GOP has flared this election year as a national warning of just how badly internal squabbling can corrode party unity. The differences could also undermine gains the GOP has made in recent years in this traditional Democratic stronghold - one of several Midwestern states to tilt more Republican.
"Minnesota has long been at the vanguard for the internal tensions that we see in the Republican Party nationwide," says Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"Minnesota Republicans have been in the deep end politically for the last several years, and I hope we are not the example for what will happen in the rest of the country," says former state GOP chairman Dave Karogseng.
The depth of the divisions became evident last month when the state GOP deadlocked over an endorsement for a candidate for the Senate seat now held by Democrat Paul Wellstone. The convention in Duluth was the first time Minnesota's party failed to make such an endorsement.
The convention ended up as an unsought lesson in humility for Mr. McKasy, a former state commerce commissioner. For months, he had aggressively courted convention delegates with a message mixing a moderate Republican call for tax reduction with more conservative opposition to gun control and abortion.
But in 14 votes over two days, convention delegates repeatedly fell shy of giving McKasy the required 60 percent majority. He lost, analysts say, because conservative delegates questioned his credentials.
"You're dealing with people who see this as a struggle for the soul of the party," says Mr. Ornstein, a Minnesota native. "When you're struggling for the soul of the party you don't step back and say, 'All right, I'll let the other person win even though that person doesn't share my values,' " he says.
Along with the party endorsement, McKasy lost the financial support and organizational heft that come with it. He now faces a steep uphill campaign against Republican rival Rudy Boschwitz, who served two terms in the Senate before a shocking ouster by Senator Wellstone in 1990.
McKasy is struggling to match Mr. Boschwitz's sizeable advantage in fund-raising and name recognition. He also can't seem to get a political grip on Boschwitz, who refuses to debate and largely ignores his criticism. Boschwitz is staking out the political high ground, saying attacks should not be within the party but against Wellstone.
Politically, McKasy is hemmed in, analysts say. Some conservative voters consider him too moderate. Some moderates consider him too conservative on abortion and gun control.
McKasy disagrees. "The base of people who support me is really pretty broad: It contains fiscal conservatives, it contains social conservatives, and it contains moderate Republicans as well."
The state GOP has not always been divided. Until the early '80s, it was led by fiscal conservatives with moderate views on social issues. "For decades the party was dominated by mainstream, country club Republicans - business-oriented, socially moderate, affluent people," Ornstein says.
"Long before the nation had heard of the Christian Coalition, in the Minnesota Republican Party you had a strong movement by religious conservatives who began to flex their muscles by doing the hard party work that was necessary" to assume control, he says. Over 15 years, conservative Republicans have secured a dominant hold on the party apparatus, observers say.
After the Sept. 10 primary, many party members will likely shelve their differences and confront the larger foe: liberal Democrat Wellstone. The senator is a prime target for all Republicans; liberal Mother Jones magazine called him "the first 1960s radical elected to the US Senate."
"Wellstone is enough of a visible liberal populist, and enough of a contrast therefore even with Rudy Boschwitz, that the party rank-and-file should come together on election day," says Ornstein.
"Even though there are real differences between social and fiscal conservatives, they can generally unite with the goal in mind of defeating a common enemy," says Jon Lerner, Boschwitz's campaign manager.
But such shoulder-to-shoulder politicking could fall short of a full reconciliation and prove to be short-lived, analysts say.