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Minnesota's Grand Old Party

As the Republican convention nears, Sen. John McCain needs to make his sightseeing plans. We're here to help.

August 24, 2008|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, MINN. — So, you're a straight-talking political maverick, you're coming to town and you want everybody's full attention.

Sorry, Mr. Ventura. Your 15 minutes are up.

But welcome, Sen. John McCain.

As Republicans prepare to gather here a week from today to nominate you as their presidential candidate, allow me to draw upon nearly five full days of boots-on-the-ground experience to offer a few Twin Cities visitor tips.

The natives are known as St. Paulites and Minneapolitans. And by now you've noticed that Minnesota -- the home state of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone, the land of 10,000 lakes and enough social services to attract tens of thousands of immigrant Hmongs and Somalis -- is not an obvious place for a GOP convention. The state leaned toward John Kerry in 2004, when voters in the Twin Cities marked about 60% of their ballots for the Democrats.

Two zoos, no elephants. What does that tell you?

So, with hosts like these, why not spring some surprises? Instead of a careful candidate, be a curious traveler.

1. No need to rush into the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, where the convention will run Sept. 1 to 4. Instead, hop in a limo and cruise the length of that city's Summit Avenue, a five-mile showcase of American dream homes. Every possible Victorian variation is here, and it makes a fine photo op for old-fashioned American prosperity. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote much of "This Side of Paradise" in the house at 599 Summit Ave., and Sinclair Lewis lived for a while at No. 513. But the best address for you is closer to the enormous St. Paul's Cathedral and its stained-glass windows.

At 240 Summit Ave., you'll find the 36,000-square-foot 1891 red sandstone mansion of James J. Hill, who started with nothing and made himself into a railroad magnate, the man who connected St. Paul to Seattle with his Great Northern Railway. Hill's is a classic bootstraps story, and his mansion is a perfect place for a high-rollers' party -- in fact, it's already been booked for at least one lobbyists' bash during the convention. But the rest of the year, the Minnesota Historical Society offers public tours ($8 per adult), Wednesdays through Sundays.

2. Don't miss the Guthrie Theater. As you draw near the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis, it'll be the biggest, bluest, curviest thing you'll see, and it houses one of the top regional-theater operations in the country. The building, designed by star French architect Jean Nouvel, opened in 2006 with three performance spaces, a glitzy restaurant (Cue) and a cantilevered observation deck with panoramic views of the river and skyline.

The obvious show to see here is the Guthrie's new musical version of "Little House on the Prairie" (running through Oct. 5, with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music by Rachel Portman). You can't get much more American, and Midwestern, than that.

But bear in mind, these people are thespians. Before you leave, toss out a question or two about "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures." That work, commissioned by the Guthrie, will premiere next year, written by Tony Kushner (of "Angels in America" fame). As the theater people offer you a cup of their free-trade coffee, you might ask how the National Endowment for the Arts is spending its grant money these days. You know, just to pass the time.

3. To handle some heartland agricultural products -- and to remind out-of-staters that the Twin Cities aren't just wall-to-wall Lutherans -- get thee to a farmers market. One of the oldest operates Saturday and Sunday mornings, April through November, at 5th and Wall streets in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood ( One of the newest runs Saturdays from mid-May to mid-October at the Mill City Museum on South 2nd Street in Minneapolis ( There's another one on Thursdays at the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis (

The farmers named Xiong are probably Hmong. The female shoppers in the Muslim head scarves are probably from Somalia. And don't you dare denounce broccoli. It's in season, along with spinach, beets, carrots, melons and sweet corn.

4. Hungry? For coffee-shop eats and schmoozing, there are two old-school favorites. One is Al's Breakfast (413 14th St. S.E.; [612] 331-9991) in Minneapolis -- a famously narrow '50s greasy spoon (just 14 stools) in the Dinkytown neighborhood where University of Minnesota undergrads Bob Dylan and Garrison Keillor hung out 48 years ago (though not together). The other tempting choice is the 24-hour pre-World War II Mickey's Dining Car (36 W. 7th St., [651] 222-5633), in St. Paul. But why not apply a little spin to your choice?

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