A red state since '68, N.D. not sold on McCain

Sen. John McCain was on TV at the student center at Minot State University, but Megan Walser barely glanced up from the information desk as she gave directions to a freshman football player.

At 19, Walser is undecided who will get her first vote for president. Rising costs of gas, food, rent and tuition are on her mind. As the daughter of a rancher in Rhame, she's thinking about farm issues, too.

But what may have caught her eye most this presidential season was who made time to campaign in North Dakota.

"I was surprised to see Obama in Fargo," she says. "We're kind of like a forgotten state."

Not this year. North Dakota hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but observers across the political spectrum here say it's too soon to color the state red in November.

Nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans turned out in February for party caucuses that gave wide margins of victory to Obama and McCain's then-rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

"This is a surprisingly tight race. It's still leaning Republican, but what's different is it's usually a lock," says Steve Light, a political scientist at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. "There's a tremendous sense of excitement about Obama among independents and the young. On this campus, it's easily the most I've seen."

Yet McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate could energize that same campus.

It's home to the seven-time national champion men's ice hockey team, the Fighting Sioux.

"The fact that she is a hockey mom is big news here," says Republican state Sen. Ray Holmberg. "She is an asset and a plus and will help him, because he does not generate crowds."

Palin may already have helped. Days before the candidates' first debate, Obama pulled out of the state. The Democrat had opened 11 offices with more than 50 paid staffers to McCain's all-volunteer effort, but as the race tightened in neighboring Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Obama campaign dispatched workers there.

"The decision to pull the Obama organization in North Dakota has deflated a speculative bubble in what now seems an overly optimistic electoral market," Light said. "While many North Dakotans truly are hungry for change in Washington, the Palin nomination may satisfy those urges."

North Dakota always was a tough sell for Obama. George W. Bush won the last two elections by 28 percentage points each time over his Democratic opponents.

Conservatism runs deep on social issues. A sign at a drugstore in Stanley saying it doesn't dispense morning-after birth-control pills is typical. Light says there is "no way that finger-wagging about" Palin's pregnant daughter will play well. "A lot of folks are married to their high school sweethearts, and some with kids, by the time they're in college," he says.

Light says a shallower streak of libertarianism feeds an attitude that "the government governs best that governs least." Yet North Dakotans also are prairie populists who "favor the little guy over big corporations" and believe government has a legitimate role in areas such as the economy. The state's three members of Congress are Democrats.

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