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4 ND senators competing to succeed Stenehjem, Dickinson's Wardner throws hat in for top spot

BISMARCK (AP) -- Four North Dakota Republican state senators are competing to succeed Bob Stenehjem as the Senate's GOP majority leader, and an election is expected before the Legislature's special session begins in November, lawmakers said Thursday.

Rich Wardner of Dickinson; Tony Grindberg of Fargo; Dick Dever of Bismarck; and Jerry Klein of Fessenden, are seeking the job, the men said in interviews with The Associated Press.

Grindberg and Wardner are members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which helps write the two-year budget for North Dakota state government. Dever is chairman of the Senate's Government and Veterans Affairs Committee, while Klein heads the Industry, Business and Labor panel.

Klein has also been chairman of the Senate Republican caucus for the past decade. The job involves fundraising and providing campaign help for Senate GOP candidates, as well as presiding over meetings of Senate Republican senators during legislative sessions.

The four candidates said they had begun calling fellow Republican senators to campaign for the position. There are now 34 GOP state senators, eight of whom are serving their first terms, and 12 Democrats.

All four praised Stenehjem, who died last month in a traffic accident, calling him a skilled leader who would be missed.

Dever said he made a recent campaign trip to northeastern North Dakota to visit senators in their home districts. He met personally with Republican Sens. Curtis Olafson in Edinburg, Joe Miller in Park River and Lonnie Laffen in Grand Forks.

The soft-spoken Dever is known as one of the Senate's more low-key members.

"I see myself more as a person that is going to work to support the members of the caucus, than to be out in front leading the charge," Dever said. "I think if you build people up, they're able to articulate the message, too."

Grindberg, who is a vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been considering a run for Congress but said he would not seek another office if he's elected majority leader.

"I think I've gained the experience over the years to help guide the caucus, and fully work with the talent that we have," Grindberg said. "It's a big job, and it's not one you can take lightly. Communication and keeping everybody informed is key."

Wardner said he would emphasize trying to give Republican senators a broader perspective on the Legislature's budget and policy debates. Senators tend to focus only on their own committee work and are less aware of other issues, he said.

Wardner said that during the 2011 Legislature, he gave three separate budget presentations to the Senate's GOP freshmen to help make them more comfortable with spending issues.

"You've got to hit the ground running when the session starts. You've got to start educating your members," Wardner said. "That's going to be a huge job. It's going to be hard."

Klein said his work as GOP caucus chairman, which involves providing fundraising and campaign help in Senate races, has made him especially familiar with his Senate colleagues, including the eight GOP freshmen. Klein described his leadership style as reserved.

"My style would be certainly to lean on my fellow caucus members, and not necessarily be the guy jumping up and down and hollering on the Senate floor," he said.

Stenehjem's deputy, Sen. Randy Christmann, R-Hazen, said he would not seek the top job. He is contemplating a run for North Dakota's Public Service Commission. One of the commission's three GOP incumbents, Tony Clark, is not seeking re-election next year.

Christmann, who is responsible for scheduling the leadership election, said he hoped it could be held within the next month. The Senate majority leader is automatically a member of the state Emergency Commission and two legislative committees that are meeting on three separate days in mid-September.

Christmann and Grindberg were Stenehjem's last challengers for the Senate majority leader's job. The three men ran against each other when Stenehjem first won the job in April 2001.

The executive committee of Stenehjem's legislative district plans to meet soon to appoint someone to finish out his term, which ends Dec. 1, 2012.

The district's GOP chairman, former state Rep. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, said a successor should be in place in time for the person to vote in the Senate leadership election.