Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, meanwhile, is putting the well-worn maxim that all politics is local to the ultimate test. The down-home, back-slapping former prosecutor rarely misses a chance to hold forth on parochial concerns like flood control or affordable housing and is quick to cite her early work in the state Capitol to help energy interests.
Though North Dakota has a history of electing Democrats -- both its senators had "D's" next to their names until 2010 -- the race in this increasingly red state was long thought to be Berg's to lose. But Heitkamp, proving to be perhaps the best pure Senate campaigner of this election cycle, has made it a barnburner.
A GOP loss would be a stinging embarrassment for the party -- and all but dash its hopes of retaking the Senate.
Eager to make the race about anything but Heitkamp's winning personality, Berg is trying to focus attention on bigger matters. In three campaign events and an interview, the freshman congressman and longtime state legislator hammered home what he called the dire consequences of Reid returning for another session as majority leader. And he's inviting national GOP figures like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to the state to vouch for him.
Berg's argument is simple and stark: A vote for Heitkamp ensures the status quo, Democrats in power.
"The current majority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, he said that coal is bad for us and hurts our country," Berg told a gathering of energy leaders in Bismarck Thursday. "Now, if the Senate changes to a Republican majority, you're going to very likely have Mitch McConnell from a coal-producing Kentucky state that's going to be a friend of coal and encourage coal production."
Heitkamp, on the other hand, sprinkles her pitches with references to working for flood protection in Fargo, fighting the Army Corps of Engineers on river management in Bismarck and advocating for affordable housing in Minot. During a tour of a health care clinic in Fargo on the verge of an expansion, she told the director she hopes to return for the ribbon-cutting, even if it means cramming it into her jam-packed schedule before Election Day.
It's all part of a concerted effort to demonstrate her deep connection to the Peace Garden State -- and prove she's no rubberstamp Democrat.
As Republicans aim to nationalize a race that's must-win to have a shot at flipping Senate control, Heitkamp's challenge is to localize it and convince voters that her party label is just that -- a label.
"Congressman Berg's whole campaign is about being a Republican and voting 100 percent with the Republican Party," she said at a campaign stop. "And right now, if you ask people in North Dakota the thing that disgusts them the most about Washington is how hyperpartisan it is, and what he's promising is more of the same."
In an interview with POLITICO, Heitkamp dismissed the GOP's playbook against her as "lame." Among the charges: that she has taken money from an anti-fracking New York City law firm and that she worked as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency three decades ago.
"That is such a Washington response. Let's take a look at what she did in 1980, 32 years ago," she said, referring to her EPA job. "It's not about my record, it's not about what I've done, what I believe and what I say my beliefs are. It's all about, 'Pay no attention to her, because she's a Democrat."
The candidates' styles of delivering their dueling messages are almost as disparate as what they say.
Heitkamp, a former attorney general, is a warm and popular figure who has built up a reservoir of goodwill from her three decades in politics and public service. She pointedly outlines her differences with Obama and national Democratic leaders, and rarely completes a stump speech without stressing the need for balance and bipartisanship.
As a retail politician, Heitkamp is virtually unmatched in her ability to connect with voters, who often affectionately address her as simply, "Heidi." She's as much at ease with grizzled, mostly male energy producers as she is touring a health care clinic staffed by young females -- shaking hands, cracking one-liners and doling out hugs.
In a state with just more than 680,000 people, she's often greeted with anecdotes about mutual friends or their first meeting years back. "That's right" she beams, eyes wide open. "How are you?"
During a tour of the Fargo clinic, one nurse could barely contain her joy that Heitkamp was perusing the exam rooms she monitors.
"I keep seeing you on TV. It's so exciting," she exclaimed. To which Heitkamp responded wryly, "Is it the good Heidi or the bad Heidi?"
Berg, on the other hand, is better on a podium or in a formal setting than freelancing a room. While Heitkamp whisked in and out of ballroom doors at the same gathering of energy leaders, Berg mostly stood in the same spot and talked with people who approached him. He spoke softly and struggled with chit chat, well aware of the Democratic tracker on his heels.
In interviews, Heitkamp delivered long, expansive answers, often jumping in to respond before the question was completed. Berg's responses were shorter and more reserved, and he hesitated to take shots at his rival.
Patricia Patron, a health care worker who has been in meetings with both candidates, said Heitkamp left a more lasting impression.
"Heidi's right there telling you things. Strength, boldness, courage. Rick Berg has no opinions. I've never heard him say anything with conviction or authenticity.
"I don't know her well," Patron added. "But I feel like I know Heidi."
Former GOP Gov. Ed Schafer dubbed Heitkamp an "excellent, articulate, effective" candidate. He said the Berg campaign rested on its laurels and had a false sense of inevitability in the early months of the campaign.
"I don't think the Berg campaign has been strong enough in pointing out to voters the fallacy as it relates to her supposed middle-of-the-road positions. I'd like to see a stronger response," Schafer told POLITICO. "They came out of 2010 and assumed 'I'm the giant killer, I beat this nine-term incumbent [Earl Pomeroy], Heidi's been out of the game. They had this giant killer mentality that 'we'll just do it again' and that caught up to them."
Schafer and other Republicans acknowledge it's hard to match Heitkamp's force of personality, but say the state's GOP tilt will help Berg survive her charm offensive.
North Dakotans have a knack for splitting their tickets, overwhelmingly sending retiring Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad back to Washington in 2000 when George W. Bush carried the state by 28 points.
But Conrad's impending retirement effectively ended a golden era for the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party -- which still uses the Non-Partisan League acronym in its title. Democrats currently hold no statewide office in the Peace Garden State and Republicans have supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature. In 2010, the GOP snapped Democrats' long-standing grip on the trio of federal offices, as the immensely popular John Hoeven swept into retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan's seat, and Berg ousted nine-term Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy by 10 points.
This year, Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple is expected to waltz to his first full term and Obama is projected to lose the state by double digits.
There's widespread agreement that no one could have made this race competitive except Heitkamp, who takes pains to separate herself from her party and president.
When she did mention the "administration," it was to accuse it of being "hostile" to the coal industry. She also name-checked moderate West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin twice, calling him a "good friend."
Heitkamp bristles at questions about the race potentially deciding which party wins the Senate.
"At the end of the day, it's not about control of anything, other than representation of North Dakota," she said. "Everybody makes a big deal out of control of the Senate. Right now, you need 60 votes. No one controls the Senate. That's a huge problem. No one controls the Senate now because nothing gets done."
Both sides are girding for tough attacks on hyper-local issues in the coming weeks. Republicans are zeroing in on Heitkamp's anti-fracking firm donations and her time as a registered lobbyist for tanning companies. Democrats plan to seize on Berg's questionable treatment of renters at a property management company.
Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, a Republican widely considered a rising star in the party, said Heitkamp's affability ultimately won't trump voters' concerns about judicial nominations, Cabinet selections and tax and spending policies.
"She's good, I like her very much. Decent person, got a great sense of humor. That's why it's competitive. It's the people's goodwill towards her," Wrigley explained. "But I think, it's going to be, 'What's our team look like? Are you picking for John Hoeven a teammate, a partner on behalf of North Dakota? My prediction is it's not going to be as close as people think it is right now."
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