"I was raised Republican, but I vote for the person, not the party," says Pam Hopkins, 57, a college bookstore manager. She voted for Bush but is leaning toward Obama "because of who he is, where he came from. He didn't come from money." She respects McCain, "but we'd be voting for another Bush."
Even staunch Republicans "are looking for something different than the last eight years," says Holmberg, 63.
North Dakotans are split evenly over the Iraq war. Light says regional issues may prove more decisive.
McCain "has some baggage," Holmberg says. Among the heaviest: Senate votes against the farm bill, ethanol subsidies and tax credits for wind energy.
After years of watching their children leave the state to find work, North Dakotans now live in an emerging energy powerhouse. An oil boom is turning farmers in the west into millionaires. Many see ethanol and other biofuels in endless fields of grain. And the gusts that whistle through prairie ghost towns are just waiting to be captured by wind farms.
"We're sitting on it, and it's blowing over our heads," says Beth Kjelson, 54, who co-owns a Minot art supply store. The Democrat supports Obama's emphasis on tapping renewable fuels rather than McCain's top priority to increase domestic oil drilling.
While job losses and other economic problems plague other states, North Dakota's 3.6% unemployment rate is among the nation's lowest. Rising commodity prices and oil tax revenues have produced a record $1.2 billion state budget surplus.
Still, in a state where triple-digit commutes are common, voters want a candidate who can bring relief at the gas pump.
"I drive 125 miles a day," says Democratic state Sen. Joel Heitkamp, who commutes between his Hankinson home and Fargo office. "We have no choice but to drive, so $4 gas gets everybody's attention."
McCain's pick of Alaska's governor "is a good thing for energy states," says Nick Hacker, a Republican who became the youngest elected senator in state history in 2004 when he was 22. "She understands energy issues."
Voters won't just look at policies, says Eric Raile, a political scientist at North Dakota State University in Fargo. These descendants of Scandinavian and German homesteaders "are wary of rapid change," he says. Even though many are tired of Bush, Obama may find voters "prefer the problems they know to the potential unintended consequences (of) change."
Ed Schultz, a nationally syndicated liberal radio talk show host in Fargo, says the Democrat's rhetorical style also may not go over well among many older voters.
"I've had callers struggle, when he's asked a question, he doesn't seem to give a direct answer. That's a turnoff to some people," says Schultz, who supports Obama. "Folks here like people who are direct and to the point."
Which is why, Holmberg predicts, the candidate who rode the "Straight Talk Express" will succeed in November, "but maybe not by the margins Republicans have won the state in the recent past."