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Published October 24, 2010, 06:24 PM

House Race One of Pomeroy's Toughest

Earl Pomeroy is used to close races, but his 10th U.S. House re-election campaign has been tough even by his standards, hampered by his support of health care legislation that many North Dakotans opposed.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Earl Pomeroy is used to close races, but his 10th U.S. House re-election campaign has been tough even by his standards, hampered by his support of health care legislation that many North Dakotans opposed.

What the incumbent Democrat will find out next week is whether his political headwinds were strong enough to fill the sails of Republican challenger Rick Berg, whose campaign has relied little on his own qualifications, and mostly on the fact that he isn't Pomeroy.

"It's required our best effort. But I think our campaign is firing on all cylinders," Pomeroy said, "and it has really been quite invigorating."

Berg, a Fargo property developer, longtime North Dakota House member and former Republican House majority leader, is running his first statewide campaign.

Although Pomeroy has won each of his last three races with more than 60 percent of the vote, he has had some close scrapes recently. In 2000, Pomeroy got only 53 percent of the votes in beating John Dorso, who like Berg was a Fargo legislator and North Dakota House majority leader. Two years later, Tax Commissioner Rick Clayburgh came close to ousting Pomeroy, but Pomeroy won with 52 percent of the vote.

However, neither Dorso nor Clayburgh benefited from the political factors that are helping Berg — high national unemployment, annual budget deficits of more than $1 trillion annually, expensive bailouts of auto and financial companies and approval of health care legislation by the Democratic-controlled Congress that many North Dakotans regard as costly and intrusive.

"People are concerned about the direction of the country. Clearly, they're worried about the deficit growing," Berg said. "My focus (in the North Dakota Legislature) has been budgeting. My focus has been encouraging job growth."

Pomeroy argues the bailouts were necessary to keep the nation's economic problems from growing much worse. He says the health-care legislation will benefit North Dakotans who lack coverage, help seniors with prescription drug bills, and provide more generous payments to doctors, hospitals, clinics and other medical providers who treat North Dakota's Medicare beneficiaries.

"We had a system that was just galloping out of control," Pomeroy said. "When you explain that North Dakota families will now have the ability to get the coverage they need, I think they largely believe that's a very good thing."

Although the national political atmosphere is more heated than it has been in Pomeroy's most recent close races, he believes Berg's campaign hasn't been as intense as others he has faced.

"(Berg) has maintained a pretty low profile," Pomeroy said. "Other campaigns have been kind of a weekly wrestling match with ... attacks on one thing or another, and much more of a sustained debate."

The incumbent Democrat has focused on Berg's long voting record in the North Dakota House to portray him as a shill for special interests.

Berg supported legislation to make it easier for banks to sell or share their customers' private financial information, a decision that was later repealed by 73 percent of the voters in a statewide referendum. Berg voted against a bill to bar insurance companies from denying coverage to domestic violence victims on the grounds that it was a pre-existing condition, saying that he did so because North Dakota insurers were not refusing coverage for those reasons.

"He has offered very little defense when those votes have come under attack," Pomeroy said.

Berg says Pomeroy uses examples that were taken out of context. North Dakota's prosperity, which includes an unemployment rate below 4 percent and a state budget surplus that could reach $1 billion in June, is an indicator that policies favored by the GOP-controlled state Legislature have worked, he said.

"I'd love to compare the results of North Dakota legislation versus Washington legislation," he said. "Here we are, a balanced budget, a growing economy, strong economy, and a lot of opportunity, versus deficits and bailouts and everything else."

On Sunday, The Bismarck Tribune and four North Dakota newspapers owned by Forum Communications Co. of Fargo — The Jamestown Sun, the Grand Forks Herald, The Dickinson Press and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead — endorsed Berg.

"Pomeroy has given North Dakota good service, but it's time for a change, as the needs of the state and nation have changed," the Tribune said in an editorial. "Berg's political and world view would be better suited to the task of controlling the nation's budget deficit and reducing the federal debt."