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Poll finds Burgum trailing Stenehjem by large margin

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, right, talks with Doug Burgum, left, during a campaign kick-off event at the North Dakota State University Alumni Center in Fargo, N.D. on Tuesday, November 24, 2015. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

BISMARCK – A new poll commissioned by North Dakota's largest union of public teachers and employees finds Fargo entrepreneur Doug Burgum trailing Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem by a large margin in the race for the Republican nomination for governor.

The poll by North Dakota United and St. Paul-based DFM Research asked 369 likely Republican primary voters if they would vote for Burgum or Stenehjem if the June 14 primary election was between the two candidates.

Fifty-nine percent said they would vote for Stenehjem, while 10 percent said they would vote for Burgum and 31 percent were unsure.

Stenehjem said the news "couldn't be better."

"The key for me is not to let up, and I won't," he said.

Burgum said the results were "not surprising at all" given Stenehjem's name recognition from his 15 years as attorney general and 24 years as a state legislator before that.

Burgum said the campaign so far has targeted district convention attendees, suggesting he has time to build name recognition with the larger voting populace.

"I would say the primary race hasn't really even started," he said.

The poll question omitted the other Republican candidate for governor, state Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck.

North Dakota United President Nick Archuleta said it wasn't meant to slight Becker, but he said "it's just not likely that he's going to win" the party's endorsement at the GOP state convention April 1-3 in Fargo. Becker has said he won't run in the primary if he loses the endorsement, while Burgum plans to run in June regardless of the convention's outcome.

Becker said mentions in the media and elsewhere of Stenehjem being the front-runner or favorite to win the endorsement have become "like a reverberation or echo chamber," but he added, "nobody has any data that I'm aware of to suggest that I won't do well at the convention."

The three candidates will square off in their first debate Thursday night in Bismarck.

The poll results, which used responses from a total of 700 randomly selected North Dakotans who indicated they were likely to vote in the primary, also identified a shift in how residents feel about the state.

Sixty-three percent said they think North Dakota is moving in the right direction, down from 81 percent who said the same in a poll by the same pollsters last August. Likewise, 24 percent said they think the state is on the wrong track, compared with 9 percent in August.

Archuleta said the recent 4.05 percent budget cuts by most state agencies to help offset a projected $1.07 billion shortfall in state tax revenues "have further shaken the confidence of North Dakota voters, as has the chatter concerning even deeper cuts."

"Our elected leaders would do well to take seriously the apprehension expressed by North Dakota voters in this poll," he said in a news release. "At the very least, legislators and others should be thoughtful and considerate as they chart a course through this economic slowdown."

The poll was conducted by landline phone and cellphone Feb. 18-25. It had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points, but the question about the governor's race had a larger margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 percentage points because of the smaller sample size.

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