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Experts: First Heitkamp-Cramer debate has some potential to impact U.S. Senate race

Rep. Kevin Cramer makes a point as Sen. Heidi Heitkamp listens during the U.S. Senate Candidate Debate on Thursday night in Bismarck. The debate was sponsored by the North Dakota Newspaper Association. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune1 / 4
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, left, and Rep. Kevin Cramer shake hands at the conclusion of the U.S. Senate Candidate Debate sponsored by the North Dakota Newspaper Association on Thursday night in Bismarck. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune2 / 4
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp makes a point in the U.S. Senate Candidate Debate with Rep. Kevin Cramer on Thursday night in Bismarck. The debate was sponsored by the North Dakota Newspaper Association. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune3 / 4
Rep. Kevin Cramer makes a point in the U.S. Senate Candidate Debate with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp on Thursday night in Bismarck. The debate was sponsored by the North Dakota Newspaper Association. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune4 / 4

Thursday's debate for the U.S. Senate election in North Dakota gave residents a chance to compare Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer side by side for the first time, with both candidates claiming victory.

But political experts were hesitant to declare a winner, and they said the brief matchup was far from the lone factor in deciding who will win the coveted seat.

"I could be proven wrong, but I don't see this debate as being decisive in the election," said Mike Jacobs, a former publisher and editor for the Grand Forks Herald.

The hour-long debate in Bismarck came a little more than two weeks away from the Nov. 6 general election. Cramer, a Republican, has passed up a bid for re-election to his U.S. House seat for the chance to unseat Heitkamp, a Democrat seeking her first re-election to the office.

There still are two weeks left for residents to decide for whom they will cast their votes, UND political science professor Bo Wood said, and that means the candidates still have time to convince undecided voters to check the box next to their names.

"I don't know yet how that's going to turn out, but I think that is what (the election) is going to turn on," he said. "It's a question of the ones who have not decided, can you get them to turn out? Can you get the ones to come out who would be more likely to favor you?"

In the debate room

Jacobs, who writes a column on political issues for Forum News Service, was in the room for the debate held at Bismarck State College. Though not full, the room had a large number of Cramer supporters. There were times when audience members verbalized agreement with the Republican and even laughed with his attacks geared at Heitkamp.

"The energy in the room was very much a pro-Cramer vibe, and if you watched him, he very much played to the people who were in the room," Jacobs said.

But those watching at home may have felt differently, at least based on the ones with whom Jacobs spoke. Those who watched the debate on TV or online described Cramer as snarky and dismissive, even if he appeared to be "in charge" in front of the live audience, the columnist said.

"In the room, it seemed the energy was with Cramer, but people I've talked with who saw it on television thought the energy was with Heitkamp," Jacobs said.

Cramer appeared calm and comfortable during the debate, but Heitkamp looked tense, said Ed Schafer, a Republican who served as North Dakota's governor for eight years. Heitkamp usually is happy and has a great personality, he said.

"That didn't come across," Schafer said.

Schafer speculated her apology during introductions set the pace for the debate. Heitkamp's campaign was criticized this week after an ad aimed at Cramer named sexual assault victims who did not give their permission to be listed in the ad.

Heitkamp previously apologized for what she called a "terrible mistake," but she addressed the matter again on Thursday, spending most of the two minutes given to her for opening comments apologizing for the error.

Jacobs said Heitkamp appeared "under a lot of stress" and "a little sleep-deprived" while Cramer looked relaxed and "alive in the moment." But she had to address the "elephant in the room," and the apology needed to be made at the debate, Jacobs said.

"I think it was her only option," he said. "She did that, I think, effectively. It pretty much didn't come up again until the very end when Cramer made a kind of oblique reference to it."

Cramer was more clear during the debate, Schafer said, but he did like how Heitkamp "tried to give lessons" to younger voters.

"I liked that part where she tried to reach out," he said.

The debate, for the most part, was tame, save for a few moments when the candidates chimed in out of turn, said Mary Wakefield, a former U.S. deputy secretary of health and human services who served under President Barack Obama.

"I don't like seeing individuals that will interrupt others when they are talking," she said. "This wasn't fire and brimstone. That's for sure."

Aftermath

Wakefield was appreciative of the debate, adding residents need a chance to compare the candidates. Voters should get at least two debates, or at least two hours, to hear candidates' views, she said.

"It's just so important, from my perspective, that people can see in real time the differences and similarities when candidates are side by side," she said. "You can't get that from ads ... the way you can get that from a forum where you have folks asking questions."

When asked who won, she said it was up to the voters to decide. She said it will depend on which issues are important to the voters.

"I think that's probably my best answer to your question," she said. "It is kind of in the eyes of the beholder."

Schafer said he felt Cramer came out stronger while Heitkamp was defensive.

Heitkamp and Cramer set themselves apart from each other, with the Republican tying himself to President Donald Trump and the Democrat attempting to portray herself as a moderate, Jacobs agreed. He felt there was no clear winner.

Both were effective at challenging each other, Jacob said. Cramer said it doesn't matter how often a candidate is on a team but rather how often the candidate stands for North Dakota. Heitkamp drew powerful images—she compared national politics to a dumbbell with parties on each side, but she said the connecting bar in the middle, comparing herself to that, makes it work.

There were no new positions taken in the debate, Jacobs said. The debate could have some potential to impact the race, but only for undecided voters, he said.

How the debate will impact the race will depend on the number of voters who watched it, Wood said. It aired on WDAY Xtra and was aired live on Forum News Service websites. Residents can watch a recording of the debate online on Forum Co. websites.

Schafer noted his experience with debates. The faceoffs held in the last days of the election are good for finding holes in an opponent but not at persuading voters who have chosen their favorite candidate, he said.

"It's certainly not going to make any partisan change their mind, but you have to look at the independents," he said. "I think it is a limited slice of voters who will be pushed into supporting one candidate or the other based on this debate."

Wakefield said she hopes voters will take the time to watch the debate and listen carefully to Heitkamp's and Cramer's answers.

"They'll walk away from those debates much better informed, I think, than they are watching a 30-second TV ad or looking at a newspaper ad," she said.

A second debate is scheduled for Friday.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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