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Published February 28 2010

Forum editorial: Heitkamp can make it a race

With less than a month before North Dakota Democrats gather in Fargo for their endorsing convention, it is past time for one of the party’s stars to make a decision. Former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp has been coy about whether she will seek the Democratic-NPL nomination to challenge likely Republican candidate Gov. John Hoeven for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Heitkamp has been in mostly no-comment mode for months. She is arguably the strongest potential candidate in the Democratic stable, and she certainly knows it. A popular two-term attorney general, she made a credible run for governor against Hoeven a decade ago. An animated and effective speaker and a focused and intelligent campaigner, she immediately would be in the media spotlight.

One argument against her candidacy is that she’s been out of the public square for a decade. But that’s not true. She was a leader of the successful 2008 ballot measure to direct more tobacco settlement money into tobacco cessation programs. When politics is in the news, she’s often asked by the press to comment. She’s regularly on the speaking circuit. And the Heitkamp name is recognized across the state in part because of her brother’s morning talk-radio program. Joel Heitkamp has not been reluctant to talk up his sister as a Senate candidate.

Most importantly for the voters of North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp’s candidacy would guarantee a lively campaign. She would not buy into media punditry that seems to have concluded popular, three-term Gov. Hoeven is a shoo-in. She is a formidable, spirited debater – a contrast to the governor’s measured, analytical style, which some observers have uncharitably characterized as dull.

But she has to make a decision, if not for herself, then for her party and the potential candidates who are waiting for her to decide. Thus far only state Sen. Tracy Potter, D-Bismarck, is actively in the race for the nomination. He’s a good candidate, but is not well-known outside of party circles and his Bismarck Senate district. Kristin Hedger, who ran a vigorous campaign for secretary of state four years ago, is on the short list of possible candidates who likely would jump in if Heitkamp does not.

A Heitkamp-Hoeven tilt would be good for the state. Voters would pay attention. Differences between the two on big policy matters would make for great debates. North Dakotans would have a choice between two highly qualified, highly motivated candidates. It would be the feisty, progressive lawyer against the buttoned-down Ivy League banker. Could be fun.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.