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MATTERS AT HAND: N.D. Senate race on national marquee

Heidi Heitkamp's in and the race is on. That's last week's headline in North Dakota politics. A Democrat, Heitkamp said she'll take on Republican Rick Berg, who wants to move to the U.S. Senate after a single term as the state's lone congressman....

Heidi Heitkamp's in and the race is on. That's last week's headline in North Dakota politics.

A Democrat, Heitkamp said she'll take on Republican Rick Berg, who wants to move to the U.S. Senate after a single term as the state's lone congressman. The seat is available because Kent Conrad has chosen not to run for re-election.

Heitkamp's announcement means that North Dakota's Senate race will be among the marquee attractions in the 2012 election cycle. It also means the state will be flooded with campaign advertising.

For the record, both face opposition, Heitkamp from Tom Potter, who lives in Grand Forks; and Berg from Duane Sand. While both may enrich the campaign dialogue -- a point Potter made in the wake of Heitkamp's announcement -- it's unlikely that either has a serious chance of winning the endorsement.

It's hard to guess whether Heitkamp or Berg has the better chance of winning -- but let's handicap the race.

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Berg is the closest thing to an incumbent in the race. Democrats will argue that his decision to seek the Senate seat so soon betrays him as a self-interested opportunist. This may have sticking power in a state where "the office seeks the man" has long been dogma.

Service in Washington may not be an advantage in the race, in any case. It creates a record. Berg's legislative record is a long one. He served as majority leader and speaker of the North Dakota House. Heitkamp has no legislative record at all, leaving her opponents without as much material as she'd be able to bring to bear against Berg.

She's not without a political record, however. Heitkamp served as tax commissioner and attorney general of the state, and she's been an activist in a variety of causes, most successfully the campaign against tobacco.

Her name hasn't been on a statewide ballot since 2000, when she lost the governorship. She's closely identified with the Democratic Party, however, and with Barack Obama, who did fairly well in the state in 2008. Republicans now see Obama as Heitkamp's albatross, as became clear when the party paid for a full-page ad linking her to the president and his policies.

All of this suggests an edge for Berg, since Obama will be on the ballot. At the same time, North Dakotans are notorious ticket-splitters. Although any Republican presidential candidate is likely to carry the state, it's not clear that any candidate will have coattails.

So, the race may come down to the effectiveness of each campaign. That's where the advertising comes in. It may well be that North Dakota's seat may be the most economical in the country this year.

Heitkamp's entry gives Democrats a reason to invest here. The political grapevine says the party made a promise to induce Heitkamp to run, and she'll get fundraising help from Conrad and former Sen. Byron Dorgan, both of whom have excellent sources nationally.

Republicans, of course, benefit from the same advertising rates, and their incentive to win the seat will be at least as great as the Democrats' incentive to keep it. There will be plenty of Republicans eager to invest in North Dakota, too.

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That leaves the candidates themselves. Heitkamp may get the edge there. She's run statewide four times, once successfully for tax commissioner, twice successfully for attorney general, and once unsuccessfully, for governor.

Heitkamp proved no match for John Hoeven (now a U.S. senator) in the governor's race - but Berg is not Hoeven. Even if his message seems shallow and his delivery mechanical, Hoeven has honed it and he never strays from it. No one is better at working a crowd. Berg hasn't shown the quite the same political skills.

Nor is the political landscape in 2012 the same as it was in 2000.

Hoeven's aggressive pro-growth message resonated with voters in 2000, when the state was still struggling with decline. Heitkamp appeared to be a throwback to earlier values and earlier economic solutions.

By 2012, voters may feel that North Dakota's had too much of a good thing, and that could make Heitkamp's message more appealling.

On balance: An interesting race, but it's too early to make a prediction.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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