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By Dale Wetzel, Associated Press Writer, Published March 08 2010

North Dakota GOP House campaign in home stretch

BISMARCK – Kevin Cramer has run against Rep. Earl Pomeroy when few Republicans wanted to challenge the Democratic incumbent and when GOP prospects looked bleaker than they do this fall.

Cramer is hoping that experience will count for something among Republican state convention delegates who will choose this month from among four candidates – Cramer, Fargo state Rep. Rick Berg, J.D. Donaghe of Kenmare and DuWayne Hendrickson of Minot – to oppose Pomeroy’s bid for his 10th term.

Berg, a Fargo commercial real estate developer and former North Dakota House majority leader, is emphasizing his background in private business and the House, where he has served for almost 26 years.

“The U.S. House is a legislative job,” Berg said. “It’s important to have legislative experience.”

Republican district chairmen and delegates say the endorsement contest is between Cramer, who is finishing his first six-year term on the state Public Service Commission, and Berg, whose North Dakota House term ends in December.

Donaghe has never run for office. Hendrickson drew 2 percent of the vote in 2008 as an independent candidate for governor.

Berg is reprising some elements of two successful convention endorsement campaigns waged by Republican Gov. John Hoeven in 2000 and his GOP predecessor, Ed Schafer, in 1992. Both aired television advertisements before the convention, a tactic that some critics derided as a costly and wasteful method of wooing the allegiance of a few thousand convention delegates.

Berg is showing his own ad, where he appears with his mother, wife and son and describes himself as a “small-town kid” from Hettinger in southwestern North Dakota.

“One of the keys is, people are very upset with what’s going on in Washington,” Berg told The Associated Press. “I felt it was important to convey ... that I’m going to stand with what North Dakota people want, not with (Democratic House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi.”

Cramer is not buying television time before the convention, which is being held March 19-21 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. His campaign has posted a series of Web videos of Cramer answering questions about health care and other issues at a Jan. 21 news conference in Bismarck.

“I want delegates to be able to watch me do these things,” Cramer said of the news conference. “This is something I’m comfortable doing, that I’m not afraid to do.”

Cramer has run three statewide campaigns, but delegates say that experience can be viewed as a weakness as well as an advantage.

He won his only PSC term in 2004 with 65 percent of the vote. In 1996 and 1998, however, Cramer lost twice to Pomeroy, getting 43 percent of the vote in his first run and 41 percent in his second.

Republican activists drafted Cramer into his second House race after he initially demurred, citing the demands of his new job as director of the state Department of Economic Development and Finance.

“I think it’s a differentiating factor, quite frankly, between Rick and me,” Cramer said. “Rick has talked about running a lot of times, but never has, until this time, when it was promising. ... I was willing to run when it wasn’t as promising.”

Although Berg has never run a statewide race, he says he’ll draw on his experience in recruiting GOP legislative candidates and aiding their campaigns to help his U.S. House bid.

Berg said a recent Rasmussen automated telephone poll that showed him and Cramer with similar, competitive results in a matchup with Pomeroy has helped quell concerns about his lack of statewide name identification.

“It was a real boost,” he said. “It gave us a lot of confidence in our message.”

Cramer insists he will not run for re-election to the Public Service Commission even should he lose the GOP endorsement race to Berg.

The Republican state convention schedule has delegates choosing their House favorite on Saturday and their PSC candidate late Sunday morning, just before the convention ends. No Republican has announced a campaign for the PSC opening, in part because of uncertainty about what Cramer will do should he lose the House endorsement.

Both Cramer and Berg say this fall’s North Dakota U.S. House race is unusual in that the issues that worry most North Dakotans – health care overhaul, energy regulation, federal spending and the skyrocketing national debt – are the same as those that have preoccupied Congress.

“This is one of the first times that I’ve seen the average person really concerned about federal legislation and the impact it’s going to have on their life,” Berg said. “You’ve heard people talk about the deficit forever, but I think people are all of a sudden really paying attention to it, and they’re understanding that we’re probably at a tipping point here.”

Cramer said Republican activists at district conventions and informal coffee klatches ask about “the mainstream issues, the front-page issues” such as health care, energy regulation and the national debt.

There is much less emphasis on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, that came up often during his House campaigns in the 1990s, Cramer said.

“Frankly, issues don’t need to be – if I might use the word – contrived,” Cramer said. “The issues are laid right out there for us, on the front page of the papers, every single day.”