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Hoeven Closer to Taking on Conrad

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) has grown increasingly interested in challenging Sen. Kent Conrad (D) in 2006 but has not reached a final decision on the contest, according to national and in-state Republican sources.

Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer (R), who himself was repeatedly recruited to run for the Senate in 2002, said that he believes “Gov. Hoeven wants to run for a Senate seat.

“His natural transition is to head off to Washington,” Schafer added. “This is a perfect time for him to do it.”

Schafer noted that he has not had a conversation with Hoeven about the Senate race specifically.

Don Canton, a spokesman for Hoeven, was more circumspect about his boss’s future aspirations.

“He is focused on the job at hand, which is governing the state of North Dakota,” Canton said. “He is not going to speculate about things down the road.”

Hoeven is not expected to make a decision until the close of the legislative session, which will be in late April or early May.

Regardless, the speculation surrounding Hoeven’s intentions has increased exponentially in recent weeks as Republican strategists privately express guarded optimism about their chances of securing their first major recruiting success of the 2006 Senate cycle.

Hoeven has done little to quiet that talk as he spent two nights in the White House earlier this month — though he insisted that the Senate contest never came up in his conversations with President Bush.

Hoeven has also met with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) to discuss the race in recent weeks.

To this point, the recruitment of Hoeven follows the blueprint of successful previous efforts by the Bush White House.

In the 2002 cycle, Bush and his various surrogates wooed now-Sens. John Thune (S.D.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Jim Talent (Mo.) into races with a combination of personal meetings and political big-footing of potential challengers.

In North Dakota, the GOP has no obvious top-tier candidate beyond Hoeven, with Schafer insisting that he will not run.

For his part, Conrad is ramping up his political operation in expectation of a Hoeven candidacy.

The most tangible sign of Conrad’s increased activity is the recent hiring of Tracey Buckman to lead his fundraising effort.

Buckman served as the national finance director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 1998 cycle and is regarded as one of the party’s best fundraisers.

“[Conrad] is having enough events to kill a man,” said one Washington-based party strategist familiar with the state’s politics.

At the end of 2004, Conrad had $884,000 in the bank after raising $199,000 from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31.

Phil Singer, communications director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that any discussion about a Hoeven Senate candidacy is a “moot point” because the governor pledged to serve a full four-year term during his 2004 re-election campaign.

“It would be surprising if he would break that pledge to the people of North Dakota and enter the [Senate] race,” Singer said.

Even Democrats concede, however, that Hoeven would provide Conrad his most serious challenge since he ousted then-Sen. Mark Andrews (R) in 1986 by a narrow 50 percent to 49 percent margin.

Hoeven was first elected in 2000, claiming an open seat after the popular Schafer said he would not seek re-election.

Hoeven faced then-state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) and won a relatively easy 55 percent to 45 percent victory — thanks, at least in part, to Heitkamp’s diagnosis and battle with breast cancer during the campaign.

In 2004, Hoeven racked up 70 percent against a former Democratic state Senator.

“Hoeven is a good likeable guy,” said a Democratic strategist. “But he has never had a real race.”

Democrats across the board rejected the comparison between North Dakota this cycle and South Dakota last cycle when Thune ousted then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).

The largest difference is that Bush, who carried North Dakota by 26 points in 2004, will not be on the ballot next year — making it more difficult for the Republican Senate nominee to latch on to his coattails, Democrats argued.

In addition, said one informed Democrat with ties to North Dakota, Conrad’s voting record is significantly more conservative than Daschle’s.

“Kent has been careful on social issues and has always been a fiscal conservative,” said the strategist. “What could Daschle point to that he was conservative on?”

The source added that Conrad would take a far more aggressive approach in attacking his opponent than Daschle did with Thune.

“They don’t call him Chainsaw Kent for nothing,” said the source. “Hoeven better be ready for blood on the floor if he runs for Senate.”

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