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North Dakota caucus drawing Dem candidates' attention

BISMARCK -- North Dakota Democrats wanted to make the state a real player in the presidential races, and they've done it. When Democrats and Republicans in the state gather Feb. 3 to conduct presidential preferences caucuses, they'll be among sev...

BISMARCK -- North Dakota Democrats wanted to make the state a real player in the presidential races, and they've done it.

When Democrats and Republicans in the state gather Feb. 3 to conduct presidential preferences caucuses, they'll be among seven states participating in the first clutch of primaries and caucuses following the New Hampshire primary.

A bill passed in the 2003 Legislature allowed the secretary of state to set the date in consultation with the parties, and the Democrats pushed for Feb. 3.

Now, much to the surprise of some observers, several of the nine Democratic presidential candidates are putting great stock in capturing all or some of North Dakota's 22 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Three candidates have twice visited North Dakota, lately with national media representatives in tow. Others said they will visit after the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary. One, Gen. Wesley Clark, has been airing television advertising for about two weeks and spoke in Bismarck Saturday night.

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"A win is a win is a win," said Fargo businessman Dan Hannaher, the former state party chairman who is Sen. John Kerry's main man in North Dakota. "It doesn't matter if it is 22 convention delegates or 200."

Vern Thompson, the Democratic-NPL's executive director, is delighted that the state's early caucuses have given North Dakota an opportunity to hear from and talk to national leaders.

"In the last two days, I've had these national reporters tell me how smart we are to do what we're doing," he said. "North Dakota has not been on too many national political radar screens for a long time."

The candidates, said Hannaher, are burdened with the need to prove themselves quickly in the process or watch their campaign perish.

"It's important for any of the serious candidates to do something quickly, certainly by February," he said.

Weather reporting

Some of the out-of-state newspapers and broadcasters seem a bit stunned to find themselves in the Flickertail state.

North Dakota, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, recently wrote, "has become an unexpected battleground." Minnesota's caucuses aren't until March 2.

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The Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote about the Gephardt-Dean one-two punch in Fargo-Moorhead last week seemed as stunned by weather as anything.

The newspaper marveled that Howard Dean drew, by the reporter's estimate, 800 supporters who "braved the cold" to attend his town hall meeting in Fargo.

The story had an abundance of words signifying cold: "frigid High Plains," "bone-chilling," "subzero temperatures," "where presidential candidates ... are as common as balmy days in January."

And that's just in the first three sentences.

At least a Minnesotan is not so impressed with the weather, though the Minneapolis reporter made sure he mentioned the wind chill temperature the night Dean was in Fargo.

MSNBC was also in Fargo during the Gephardt-Dean visits, and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen datelined His latest column on Dean from Fargo.

"I wasn't able to keep track of them, that's how many there were," said Thompson after going to both candidate's events.

Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt was the first to hire staff and open an office last fall and has the largest North Dakota staff, with four employees in two cities. He visited twice in the space of a one-month period.

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"I think our campaign is taking North Dakota the most serious," said Tessa Gould, Gephardt's state director. She said he'll likely visit again before Feb. 3.

Gephardt is determined to win in Iowa and North Dakota, hoping that will cement the entire Midwest --including crucial states like Michigan and Ohio -- for the long run.

Edwards on the way

Hannaher worked hard to get the Kerry campaign to send the Massachusetts senator here for the state party Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, held Saturday night in Bismarck. But he was told the campaign is putting all its efforts into the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses for now.

It was Clark who said yes to the Democratic-NPL invitation to speak Saturday night in what was his second trip to the state.

Clark's North Dakota campaign manager is confident that the general has a hefty following in the state. John Marshall said that if the event Saturday had been set as a rally instead of a ticketed sit-down dinner, it would draw 1,000 people.

Tim Purdon, the Bismarck attorney who serves as the North Dakota contact for John Edwards' campaign, said he's optimistic the North Carolina senator will visit here between Jan. 27 and Feb. 3.

"I think the moving of the caucuses up is great for the party, and everyone's excited," he said. "I think John Edwards has a great chance to do well in North Dakota. John Edwards has a chance to break out on Feb. 3."

Dennis Kucinich announced plans Saturday to visit Fargo Fargo on Tuesday.

Joe Lieberman may also visit once after New Hampshire votes.

Minnesota fly-over?

Gould says Gephardt expects to win the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19, get a good "bump" in New Hampshire's Jan. 27 primary, and then pick up a good share of the seven states on Feb. 3.

It's about momentum, she said, "yeah, absolutely."

She emphasizes how many times Gephardt visited North Dakota in several years, helping with a Devils Lake outlet and funding for flood recovery after the 1997 disasters in the Red River Valley, both due to his stint as the U.S. House's Democratic leader.

The Minnesota DFL Party does not resent the attention North Dakota is getting, said communications director Bill Amberg, though many DFLers and Republican leaders tried to pass a bill last year to move state caucuses up. It lost in the Senate.

It's not true the candidates are flying over Minnesota to get from Iowa to North Dakota, he said. They're stopping in Minneapolis for fundraisers and such. He hasn't heard that Minnesotans are looking down their noses at their western neighbor's place in the spotlight.

But, he added, "It might have come as a surprise to some people when they read in the big paper that North Dakota had prudently moved theirs up," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Janell Cole at (701) 224-0830

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