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Published August 21 2012

ANALYSIS: Heitkamp, Berg carefully control messages, appearances in nationally watched Senate race

FARGO - North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race is widely viewed as one of the most competitive in the nation.

Yet here on the prairie, the contest between Republican Rep. Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is less engaging than distant observers proclaim.

Heitkamp and Berg have been cautious, preferring to deliver their message via TV screens, where campaigns can carefully control the message.

“These candidates are getting out early, trying to define themselves and connect with voters,” said Kjersten Nelson, an assistant political science professor at North Dakota State University. “Especially with national interest focused on this race, each candidate is trying to define him/herself before the opponent does it first.”

Both candidates have crisscrossed the state, yet they’ve done so mostly to walk in parades, cater to donors at private fundraisers and do meet-and-greets with special interest groups.

They’ve spent far less time hosting open public events where they’re subject to the scrutiny of average Joes.

The candidates also have yet to face each other in person.

State political observers expect the race’s tone to change after Labor Day, when the campaign season really kicks into gear.

“We’re going to see 60 days of ugliness that we’ve never experienced in North Dakota before,” said Jim Fuglie, a longtime state political observer who once briefly led North Dakota’s Democratic Party.

The stakes are high

Nearly 20 years of an all-Democratic congressional delegation brought mostly predictable contests in North Dakota, but the 2010 House race and this year’s Senate campaign have been a stark contrast.

The seat of retiring Sen. Kent Conrad gives the state GOP a chance at securing the same lock Democrats once had on the delegation.

Nationally, the race also has partisan significance.

“This is a critical race here for Republicans who are trying to capture the Senate,” Fuglie said.

Despite the high stakes, North Dakota’s race will be decided by a small fraction.

Independent polling this summer indicates that Heitkamp and Berg are fighting over about 5 to 10 percent of likely voters who say they’re still undecided.

That’s likely no more than 32,000 North Dakotans, based on voter turnout in the 2008 general election.

It’s unprecedented for North Dakota, Fuglie said.

“Generally, North Dakotans are late to make up their minds when it’s a close election,” Fuglie said. “You’ve got this whole election dynamic playing out, seeking the voters of a very small group of people, and it’s one of the most unusual things I’ve ever seen in North Dakota politics.”

How it’s handicapped

The view of North Dakota’s race has evolved over time from an easy Republican win to an all-out horse race.

For months, national analysts pegged Berg as the favorite, but the tides have changed this summer. Many now call the Berg-Heitkamp race a “toss-up.”

As a congressman, analysts say Berg runs as a pseudo-incumbent in a diehard red state. But they also say Heitkamp has closed the gap.

“There’s a palpable sense that the sheer force of Heitkamp’s personality and likability has her in the game,” wrote Politico analyst Dave Catanese, previously a TV journalist in Bismarck.

In official polling, though, Berg hasn’t relinquished his edge.

Out of three independent polls conducted since early May, Berg leads by an average of 5 percentage points over Heitkamp, Real Clear Politics found.

Democrats beg to differ with that conclusion. The four internal polls they’ve released since last fall repeatedly show Heitkamp as the candidate ahead.

Controlling the message

Despite the spotlight on the race, Heitkamp and Berg’s face-to-face interactions with the public have been controlled.

Berg has been rarely seen or heard from outside of the routine weekend parade or his TV ads. His public appearances have been almost exclusively confined to his role as a U.S. congressman rather than as a Senate hopeful.

Still, Berg emphasizes travel and public appearances as a key point of his campaign.

“Every chance I get, I want to be meeting and talking to people in North Dakota,” Berg said. “What’s important to me is to meet with as many people across North Dakota as I possibly can over the next three months.”

Berg added that his public events would be posted on his campaign website going forward.

Heitkamp has some future events listed on her website. She’s held at least a couple dozen campaign events – outside of parades – to which the public has been invited.

Still, the majority of Heitkamp’s public appearances have come on less than a day’s notice, a scheduling inconvenience that has the potential to limit the public’s access to the candidate.

A key example of that came this spring when Heitkamp held two series of town hall events in four cities. Notice of the town halls came less than 24 hours before the events.

Heitkamp said she feels the public had enough time to learn of them.

She said each of her town hall events in Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot drew a packed audience – in venues that could hold no more than between 50 and 200 people – and she answered questions from critics who attended.

Berg has held no such open forums during his campaign, though Heitkamp acknowledges that she has more time to do so and that Berg has obligations in Congress.

Like Berg, Heitkamp said meeting personally with voters is at the heart of her campaign, “the most important thing.”

Nonetheless, there’s a perception among observers of the race – including others on the campaign trail this year – that neither candidate spent much time personally meeting with general voters this summer.

One such person is Republican Kevin Cramer, a former leader of the North Dakota Republican Party who’s known both candidates for years and is engaged in his own political battle for Berg’s House seat.

“I’m a little surprised,” Cramer said during a conversation this summer with The Forum Editorial Board. “The only thing I can think of in this particular case is just that they both may be afraid of misstepping, and the consequence of that could be that 1 percent that changes the whole election.”

“Rick is just by nature more cautious,” Cramer said. “That’s not just this campaign; that’s always been his style. He’s a calculating thinker, so that doesn’t surprise me.”

“It is uncharacteristic, however, of Heidi, and maybe it’s a new discipline that’s being imposed on her,” Cramer said.

In general, NDSU political professor Nelson said defining a candidate’s public persona can be tricky.

“The difficulty for candidates in this type of situation is walking that fine line: trying to cultivate a more relaxed and likable persona but also being themselves,” she said.

Heading into the fall

With the 2012 campaign season already inundating North Dakotans, analysts suggest that before now, it might have been too soon to hold frequent public events.

But with less than three months left until Election Day, that’s likely to change, said Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota.

“There’s absolutely no getting around the need for that face-to-face retail campaigning,” Jendrysik said. “I don’t think you can win a campaign with just bombarding the airwaves with ads.”

Nelson agrees that voters tend to take notice of political campaigns as summer ends.

“Certainly, the candidates have been working hard to persuade and reinforce those who pay attention early … but there soon is going to be a whole new batch of voters who are paying attention now where they weren’t before, and the candidates will want to be delivering the same messages to them, as well,” she said.

Heitkamp and Berg have publicly agreed to two joint appearances before Election Day.

Their first is a debate set for Sept. 5 at the annual North Dakota Broadcasters Association meeting in Bismarck. They’ll meet again later that month to tape a televised debate that will air on Prairie Public TV in October.

Heitkamp originally challenged Berg to seven debates but, strategically, it might be “wise” for Berg to commit to only two debates, Jendrysik said.

“I would say he’s still the favorite, and more debates are only going to increase the chances of a catastrophic mistake,” Jendrysik said.

Nelson agrees that Berg has less to gain from debating than Heitkamp does.

“Certainly, both of the candidates in this race have records that can be aired, but given Congress’ unpopularity, it is understandable that Berg may not want to contend with a give-and-take on that in a relatively uncontrolled setting,” she said.

Nasty politics

As the campaign closes, the contest between Berg and Heitkamp is likely to get more negative, a premise both candidates recognize but say they don’t personally like or support.

In North Dakota, where a Senate race hasn’t been this close for a long time, it may feel more negative than usual, Nelson said.

“The candidates are going to be doing all they can to open up those differences between them, not to mention the third parties who will be trying to do this as well,” she said.

So far, most of the negative campaigning has come from such outside groups that don’t have any connection to North Dakota or – by law – either candidate, but they have a wealth of money to spend pushing their political agendas.

“That may or may not be beyond the control of the candidates.” Fuglie said.

Despite knowing where the mudslinging has come from to date, Berg and Heitkamp have blamed each other for attacks and downplayed their own.

For instance, when talking about negative campaigning, Heitkamp berates Berg’s attack ads, while neglecting to mention her campaign’s own assaults.

Heitkamp released in mid-June the first attack ad of the two candidates; however, it was published only online. The ad used home-video-style footage of Berg at a GOP campaign event, in which he’s unaware he’s being filmed by a Democratic operative.

Heitkamp also released a radio ad last week that criticizes Berg on farm issues.

“I think it’s been pretty negative so far,” Heitkamp said of the race, laying sole blame on Berg. “If I had my druthers, we’d eliminate all TV advertising, and we would go to a system where we have debates … so people could see us side by side.”

Berg’s campaign has released three negative TV ads, all of which include dialogue calling into question Heitkamp’s trustworthiness.

When asked about the tone of the race, Berg said: “I’m a positive, upbeat person. I can’t control what a lot of these outside groups are doing.”

Outside of ads, most of the digs between the campaigns seek to discredit the opponent’s candidacy.

Berg relentlessly paints Heitkamp as a loyal ally to President Barack Obama, a maneuver that echoes national Republicans who try to demonize the president’s policies, mostly by emphasizing his controversial health care reform law.

Meanwhile, Heitkamp’s campaign consistently tries to cast Berg as an ineffective congressman and a lock-step follower of House GOP leadership.

“They’re both trying to paint the other as dangerous,” Jendrysik said.

Fuglie said Heitkamp and Berg are also battling to prove who’s more relatable to voters.

When it comes to appealing to voters, Nelson said each candidate has their target audience they’re trying to reach, especially through TV ads.

“It looks to me like Berg is trying to shore up support among women … while Heitkamp appears to be emphasizing her independence,” Nelson said.

Fuglie said Berg – like North Dakota Republicans, in general – holds the edge on the ground game that could determine the race.

“He has the advantage of this being a Republican state with a large block of Republican voters,” Fuglie said.

He said Berg needs to shore up his Republican base and fend off Heitkamp’s attempts to sway moderate Republicans and independent voters at the polls.

“You have to give the appearance of being visible,” Fuglie said. “You have to be out among the voters. Whether that affects a large number of voters, it probably doesn’t, but you have to do it anyway.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541