Jacobs: Images of GOP candidates sharpen at conventions

GRAND FORKS -- Labels are irresistible, and in politics they can also be useful. They communicate quickly and clearly the characteristics of a candidate.So here are three labels, one for each of the Republican gubernatorial candidates:The Optimis...

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GRAND FORKS - Labels are irresistible, and in politics they can also be useful. They communicate quickly and clearly the characteristics of a candidate.
So here are three labels, one for each of the Republican gubernatorial candidates:
The Optimist.
The Pessimist.
And Mr. In-Between.
I’ve applied them after hearing the candidates and their surrogates at conventions in Gilby, Grand Forks and Park River. These were in adjacent but dissimilar legislative districts. Districts are local stages for statewide politics.
In his column published in Forum Communications newspapers on Sunday, blogger Rob Port has a similar but not quite the same analysis.
Wayne Stenehjem emerges as the optimist. His own speech - in Grand Forks - stressed his experience and his share of the credit for good times in North Dakota.
He acknowledged the economic downturn, but confidently asserted that North Dakota will deal with it effectively.
The pessimist is state Rep. Rick Becker, who faulted Republicans for spending too much and argued that much stricter fiscal discipline will be necessary.
That leaves Doug Burgum as Mr. In-Between.
Of course, Stenehjem is the government insider here. He’s been attorney general since 2000, and before that he served in the state Senate, and before that in the state House.
He’s a lawyer. He comes from a political family. His aunt was Republican national committeewoman.
Becker has his own insider credentials. He has served in two legislative sessions. Still, he presents himself - in person in Gilby and Grand Forks and through a surrogate in Park River - as an exceptional Republican, ranked the second most conservative member in his first session and bettering his position in the second.
Burgum is the outsider, though not by much. He, too, comes from a political family. His mother was Republican national committeewoman. He’s been an honorary chair of at least two Republican gubernatorial campaigns.
He campaigns as a business person - someone who built a company, created jobs and made a fortune. “This is not a belt tightening exercise,” he said of the state’s current financial woes.
North Dakota must spend more intelligently. It must wean its economy from commodity production; Burgum asserts that technology is the way to do it.
Here’s the essence of the speech on his behalf, delivered in Gilby by Bob Harms, who was legal counsel to Govs. Ed Schafer and John Hoeven:
“Ed Schafer: Businessman. Governor.
“John Hoeven. Businessman. Governor.
“Jack Dalrymple. Farmer. Businessman. Governor.
“Wayne Stenehjem.”
Long pause.
“Doug Burgum. Businessman.”
The audience was left to finish the thought.
Becker’s approach is by far the most ideological and the most intellectual. His own speeches, in Gilby and Grand Forks, were heavy with content, including references to a French political economist whom most in the audience probably had never heard of.
Spending will be cut, he made clear. Government will be accountable.
His mission in the Legislature, he said, was to make North Dakota more conservative, and he made clear that would be his mission in the governor’s office, too.
Stenehjem’s was a feel-good message, both from his own lips and from his surrogates, Sen. Tom Campbell in Gilby and his chief deputy, Tom Trenbeath, a former state senator, in Park River. Trenbeath described Stenehjem as a nice guy and a family man, a great lawyer and a great boss.
None of the candidates attended the Park River convention, which was one of five Republican gatherings in the state on Saturday. Harms represented Burgum again. Their friendship dates to college days at North Dakota State University in the early 1970s.
Another speech for Burgum came from Roger Demers, who grew up in the area and coached baseball teams there. He worked for Burgum for two decades and now heads his own Internet enterprise.
Burgum, he said, had created jobs and hired North Dakotans, including at least 22 from within 40 miles of Park River. This hinted at an election strategy that Burgum must be imagining. He has said he can’t win the Republican endorsement outright, and that he’ll go to the primary election to win the nomination. This strategy precludes running in November as an independent. North Dakota law doesn’t allow a primary loser a place on the general election ballot.
Burgum is well known in Fargo, where he built Great Plains Software. The company now belongs to Microsoft, and the campus in Fargo is Microsoft’s second largest.
But he’s not so familiar elsewhere in the state. Hence the reminder that Park River natives - and graduates of high schools around the state - have good jobs because of Burgum’s business success.
Stenehjem probably has a lock on the convention, nevertheless. More than three fourths of Republican legislators have endorsed him.
Becker is a plastic surgeon - not a business that employs huge numbers of people. He’s an obvious business success, however. He’s parlayed his medical fees into a variety of other businesses.
His mission - moving North Dakota even farther right - probably is a multi-year project. He’s likely to get quite a bit closer than any ideological libertarian has so far, based on his intelligence, record and zeal, even if he doesn’t take the campaign to the primary election.
The Republican state convention is the first weekend in April, and this low key, local campaign probably will continue until then.
A more public campaign likely will follow, leading to a primary election in June.
The weekend conventions produced three results of interest, and the more conservative activists were winners in each of them.
In District 28, William Kretschmar - a long-serving member of the North Dakota House - was defeated. He’s regarded as too tolerant on social issues. Likewise in District 36, Alan Fehr lost to a candidate who presented himself as more conservative.
In District 10, Janne Myrdal, an anti-abortion activist, won a four-way race for endorsement for the state Senate.
District 28 is in south-central North Dakota, east of the Missouri River and south of Interstate 94. District 36 is in southwestern North Dakota surrounding Dickinson. District 10 borders both Minnesota and Manitoba in the northeastern corner of the state.
Wrong again.
The host of District 4’s Republican convention tells me that contrary to my assertion in last week’s column, it was his uncle who served as a Democratic legislator. His own father, he said, “has never been a Democrat.”
Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. Readers can reach him at .

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