By HENRY C. JACKSON, Associated Press
MAYVILLE, N.D. (AP) — Off a dirt road a mile-and-a-half from the nearest town, Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp is standing in the loft of a barn, giving a campaign pitch heavy on personal appeal: She talks about her independent voice and a work ethic that she took to the state attorney general's office, all gleaned from a life firmly rooted in North Dakota.
"Ya know?" she says over and over, seeking connection to a crowd of mostly older Democrats.
Freshman Rep. Rick Berg, Heitkamp's Republican opponent, tends toward campaign riffs that are comparatively light on personal stuff, focusing instead on his conservative voting record, his concern about the nation's exploding debt and the "clear choice" voters face between Republicans and Democrats in this tight, tense election year.
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The differing approaches are central to the candidates' neck-and-neck fight for an open Senate seat in a state with the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. And that's made for a race with unique dynamics as the rest of the country struggles out of recession and Republicans and Democrats duke it out for control of the closely-split Senate.
North Dakota is one of three states that have shifted from nearly sure Republican wins to tossups fewer than two months before Election Day. The others are Missouri, where Rep. Todd Akin's comments on "legitimate rape" make him less of a threat to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, and Indiana, where tea party star Richard Mourdock is having trouble pulling away from Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly.
In addition, Republicans are scrambling to hold on to the Maine Senate seat of retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe and have seen Democrat Elizabeth Warren gain ground on Republican Sen. Scott Brown in a tightly contested race.
North Dakota is an economic outlier, too.
The nation's 8.1 percent jobless rate, a top issue for President Barack Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney, is not an issue here because North Dakota's booming energy industry has kept unemployment at roughly 3 percent. And unlike many Democrats, Heitkamp has long ties with the state's key energy industries: oil, natural gas and coal.
The anomaly of North Dakota has allowed Heitkamp to stay competitive with Berg in a race that, a few months ago, Republicans felt quite certain wouldn't qualify as, well, a race.
Heitkamp has survived a blizzard of ads, hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending from Republican-backed groups and the state's recent conservative tilt to pull into a virtual tie for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad.
In the first of three scheduled debates, Heitkamp attacked Berg for what she said was her Republican rival's support for cutting taxes for wealthy people and turning Social Security into a private pension system. Berg countered that the Democratic-controlled Senate has done nothing to rein in the debt and has failed to help the nation's economy.
The event did little to shake the perception that the Senate race will be close.
Heitkamp has put her likeability at the center of her campaign.
Pushing back on early Republican attacks that highlighted her support of Obama and his signature health care reform law, Heitkamp launched an ad in which she speaks directly to the camera about surviving breast cancer. In the spot, she says she supported some, but not all, of the health care law's features. And she attacked Berg for supporting changes to Medicare.
In another spot that aired during the summer, Heitkamp stood in the middle of a wind-blown field and recounted her work fighting a "government land grab" during her time as attorney general. The ad refers to her successful efforts to stop the federal government from seizing North Dakota farmland through environmental easements.
Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to counter Heitkamp's folksiness with a steady stream of attack ads. In them, Berg ties her to Obama's policies, particularly health care. Outside groups, such as the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads, have attacked her tenure as attorney general, alleging she hired out-of-state lawyers to represent North Dakota in tobacco litigation in exchange for campaign donors. Heitkamp has strenuously denied the charge.
She also has tried to use the outside spending of Republican groups to her advantage. Unmentioned, of course, is support she gets from Majority PAC, a group backing Senate Democrats, which has spent more than $1 million to boost her chances.
"They think this Senate seat is an auction," Heitkamp often says in campaign speeches, referring to Republicans and groups like Crossroads, which has aired more than $250,000 in ads attacking the Democratic candidate. The seat, Heitkamp adds, "does not belong to Karl Rove and his billionaire friends."
Many of Heitkamp's supporters say her personal touch is what attracts them.
"She gets down to brass tacks, she really talks to voters," said Bill Bohnsack, a 66-year-old retired teacher from Mayville, N.D., who plans to vote for Heitkamp.
Berg, meanwhile, has generally stuck to linking Heitkamp to Democrats in Washington.
"I think it's clear at the national level between policies under President Obama ... she is aligned with him," said Berg, who is part of the 2010 freshman class that handed House control to Republicans.
He says he's just as personable a campaigner as Heitkamp and recounted participating in a parade in the Democrat's hometown in which he had so many GOP supporters in the back of his pickup truck that the floor bottomed out. One of his ads features a testimonial from an Army veteran who says Berg helped him get a Purple Heart military decoration; another focuses on Berg as a young child. It closes with footage of Berg and his 12-year-old son, Jack.
"North Dakota is a small state, we know people, we know each other," Berg said in an interview. "And I think this election will be won with grass-roots, person-to-person campaigning."
But warmth is not all that matters to voters here.
Tracton Lewis and his wife, Victoria, both 35, said they thought Berg was plenty friendly. But they drove from their home in Park River, N.D., to Fargo to hear Berg speak for one reason.
Heitkamp, Tracton Lewis said, "is too liberal for us."