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With Conrad retiring, who's North Dakota's next US Senator?

FARGO -- With Sen. Kent Conrad out of the picture, perhaps the right question isn't who will run for his seat in 2012.

"Maybe it'd be easier to figure out who isn't going to run for it," state Republican Party Chairman Stan Stein said, laughing.

Indeed, the lists of names being tossed around as possible candidates in 2012 are lengthy, according to party officials who reacted to Conrad's announcement Tuesday that he won't seek re-election next year.

Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk, a Republican, announced last week he has formed an exploratory committee for a possible Senate bid.

Among others being mentioned in GOP circles, Stein said, are newly elected U.S. Rep. Rick Berg of Fargo, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark, not to mention state legislative leaders.

One unknown, Stein said, is whether newly seated Gov. Jack Dalrymple will seek a full term in 2012, which could affect which offices some of the other potential candidates seek.

A Berg candidacy for the Senate also would put his House seat up for grabs.

Stein said not having to defeat a longtime incumbent like Conrad "without a doubt" improves the GOP's chances of winning the Senate seat, but the party still plans to run an enthusiastic campaign on the issues.

"We're not taking it for granted, just because Sen. Conrad isn't in the race, that we own that seat," he said. "That's not the case at all. We need to do our homework and get after it."

State Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Mark Schneider said among the names circulating as potential candidates are former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp and her brother, former state legislator Joel Heitkamp; current state Sens. Mac Schneider and Ryan Taylor and Rep. Corey Mock; former state lawmakers Pam Gulleson, Tracy Potter and Jasper Schneider; and Conrad state director Scott Stofferahn.

Mark Schneider said while Conrad's exit is a "disappointment" and "a huge loss," it's also an opportunity for younger candidates. Still, it makes it more challenging for Democrats to keep the seat in 2012, he said.

"I think Kent could have beaten all comers without much problem at all, and I think he would have kept a lot of people away," he said. "You're going to see a lot of scurrying now on the other side, lining up to try to run for this job."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a statement saying in the wake of John Hoeven's overwhelming Senate victory in November, it fully expected North Dakota to be a major battleground in 2012, but Conrad's exit "dramatically reshapes this race in the Republicans' favor."

"We believe this race represents one of the strongest pickup opportunities for Senate Republicans this cycle and will invest whatever resources are necessary to win next year," the NRSC stated.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also issued a statement, stating there are "a number of potential Democratic candidates who could make this race competitive, while we expect to see a contentious primary battle on the Republican side."

Stein said members of the party's convention planning committee are already looking for a bigger venue for the March 2012 convention.

Nowatzki is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communcations Co.