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North Dakota

Usually Red State, North Dakota Not Sold on McCain

Nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans voted in Feb. at N.D. caucuses.

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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 (Democrat Barack) 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 says. "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 past two elections by 28 percentage points each time over his Democratic rivals.

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 teenage 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.

"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 priorty on tapping renewable energy sources rather than McCain's emphasis on increasing offshore 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 Obama'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."

That's why, Holmberg predicts, the candidate who rode the "Straight Talk Express" will win in November, "but maybe not by the margins Republicans have won the state in the recent past."

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