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Clinton stumps for Heitkamp in Fargo

Photo by Dave Wallis / Forum Communications Former President Bill Cliniton and U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp give thumbs up to supporters during a rally Monday at the Fargo Civic Center.

FARGO -- The signs and the chants said "Heidi." But the rock star atmosphere in the Fargo Civic Center most definitely said "Bill Clinton."

The former president was in town Monday night to bolster Heidi Heitkamp's U.S. Senate bid. A capacity crowd at the Civic Center showed up to greet him with full-throated enthusiasm.

Outgoing Sen. Kent Conrad, U.S. House candidate Pam Gulleson, North Dakota state Sen. Mac Schneider, and Fargo City Commissioner Melissa Sobolik also spoke.

So did Heitkamp herself, who urged supporters to push to the end in a close race.

But Clinton was the unquestioned draw for the event -- even luring a number of Minnesota voters who won't see Heitkamp on their ballots.

"If he could run again, I would vote for him," said Kelsey Engel, a Concordia College student from Detroit Lakes. "He really energizes me."

Lynn Kessler of Moorhead summed up Clinton's allure more succinctly, if colloquially: "He's totes amazing."

Even Sobolik got in on the action, recalling a school exam where she was asked what "B.C." and "A.D." stood for.

"I put down that it stood for 'Before Clinton,' and that's how history should be measured," she said.

In trademark fashion, Clinton laid out vigorous often exhaustive defenses of Heitkamp's positions and record on issues ranging from energy policy to student loan debt to the Affordable Care Act.

He also mixed in a healthy dose of local charm, saying the movie "Fargo" was "the cult film of Air Force One" during his second term.

He defended Heitkamp against attacks likening her to other politicians, which have come hard this election cycle. On comparisons to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, he offered a twist on Lloyd Bentsen's iconic rebuke of Dan Quayle, saying: "I know Harry Reid. Harry Reid is a friend of mine. Heidi is not Harry Reid."

Clinton's stop in Fargo, a last-minute decision, came a day before planned visits in Minnesota. Those are in part a function of recent polls that show the presidential race tightening in a state once firmly in Barack Obama's column.

The havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy on scheduled campaign stops also played a role in his Midwestern swing.

But no one would mistake Monday's event for an Obama rally.

Despite the long roster of Democrats on hand, the president's name came up just once at the event, in passing in an anecdote from Clinton on George W. Bush's energy policy.

Clinton defended many Obama-led policies, but did not tie them to the president.

Heitkamp, who likely will need support from voters who also vote for Republican Mitt Romney if she hopes to win, did not mention Obama at all.

Rick Berg, Heitkamp's opponent, and other Republican groups have sought aggressively to tie Heitkamp to Obama and to policies like the health care law that are unpopular in North Dakota.

Heitkamp spokesman Brandon Lorenz did not say whether the omission was intentional.

"Congressman Berg would much rather talk about that than talk about Heidi," he said.

Lorenz said 3,500 people were in the building, the most the fire marshals would allow, and that a few hundred more watched from an overflow area.

"This is the kind of event that helps really put a shot in the arm of this campaign," he said.

Before the event, Berg spokesman Chris Van Guilder made a general statement that made reference to Obama, but not to Clinton.

"This election is about competing visions for our state and nation," the statement read in part. It went on to refer to recent newspapers endorsements for Berg, including The Forum's.

The Forum was also a popular topic at Monday's event, though not for popular reasons: Both Conrad and emcee Joel Heitkamp, the radio host and Heidi Heitkamp's brother, both made heavily booed references to a recent Forum poll that showed Berg leading the race by 10 percentage points.

Heidi Heitkamp said the race will come down to the wire, and asked everyone to pitch in.

"Every vote will count," she said. "And those of you from Minnesota who just came over to hear the president, we need your help, too."