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Jacobs: Debate suggests course of campaign

The weekend debate between candidates for North Dakota's only seat in the U.S. House didn't produce much to distinguish one from the other. Of course, it is early in the campaign. Whether subsequent encounters will differentiate these two is problematic, however; both Republican Kelly Armstrong and Democrat Mac Schneider played cagey at Saturday's debate sponsored by the North Dakota Newspaper Association and held at its annual convention.

The two have remarkably similar biographies. Both come from families of status and means; in a less egalitarian state, they might be said to have pedigrees.

Both are young lawyers on either side of 40 years old. Both went east for training, though Armstrong returned to finish his degree at UND. Both have young families; Schneider of preschoolers; Armstrong of grade-schoolers.

Both started legal careers in Grand Forks. Armstrong left after 10 years, drawn by the oil boom to return to his family's energy business in Dickinson. He maintains a partnership with Alex Reichert, a Grand Forks attorney, Dickinson native and lifelong friend. As recently as December, Schneider said he'd be moving to Fargo to join his family's law firm there. The decision to run for Congress seems to have preempted that. He told the newspaper crowd that he's from Grand Forks.

Armstrong was elected to the state Senate, where he quickly became a go-to guy on criminal justice issues. In 2017, he became chair of the Senate's Judiciary Committee. His district, Number 36, includes a small piece of Dickinson and a large swath of southwestern North Dakota, including all of rural Stark County and parts of Morton, Dunn and Hettinger counties. Schneider also served in the state Senate. First elected in 2008, he did not survive the Trump Tide, which swept the state, including his campus district in Grand Forks. He was the Democratic floor leader in two sessions, and he served with Armstrong on the Judiciary Committee.

The two have another, less direct connection; Armstrong served as chair of the state Republican Party until he began his House campaign; Schneider's father was chair of the state Democratic-NPL Party.

As to differences?

Schneider is a big man, solidly built, like a football player. That he was, at UND. Armstrong is smaller by comparison, a baseball player and a wrestler. Schneider is still, almost impassive. Armstrong is a bundle of energy, almost constantly in motion. I don't know this for sure, but I suspect Armstrong's suit cost more than the one that Schneider wore.

The questioners probed for differences between the candidates, but whatever emerged was hedged; Armstrong arguing consistently against federal involvement in everything from school safety to world trade — except farm policy. Both argued for the government's role there, especially in the crop insurance program.

Schneider said he's disappointed that the farm bill has "been politicized." A volley developed between the candidates on two hot-button issues, the repeated failure to pass a budget resolution and threatened tariffs on imports. Armstrong repeated the line developed by his party's Senate candidate, Kevin Cramer, that Trump's bluster about trade is a negotiating tactic; Schneider warned that anyone who opposes trade wants fewer farmers. Armstrong described the inability to pass a budget as "a national security issue." Schneider called it "really a moral issue" since increasing debt will burden future generations.

Schneider proved to have done his "opposition research." He challenged Armstrong's vote to allow incorporation of some farms, an idea that was rejected by nearly 80 percent of voters in the 2016 primary election. The idea had come from farmers themselves, Armstrong said, and he'd joined other Republicans in supporting the policy. Voters rejected it, and the state had moved on to look for other ways to help farmers.

Specific policy differences did emerge, but they involved U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who is not a candidate in the House election. Armstrong criticized her votes against President Trump's signature issues, reforming taxes and repealing Obamacare. Schneider said Heitkamp has been "an excellent senator for North Dakota" and supported her vote on the tax bill. He added, "She's going to run her own race."

This last remark might be a hint about the nature of the coming campaign, which is being closely watched. Is it to be a national campaign, with the president's policy and performance as central issues? Or is it to be a strictly state campaign?

Schneider's remarks suggest the latter option. In his opening statement he promised a campaign "based squarely on North Dakota issues" and he said he'd help to "lift the heavy hand" of the federal government.

Armstrong's answers point to the other option, a campaign linking North Dakota candidates to national issues, including the one he mentioned most, the intrusive federal government.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.