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Hoeven Still Weighing Challenge to Conrad

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven’s (R) continued silence on whether he will challenge Sen. Kent Conrad (D) next year is leading many in the state to believe the popular chief executive will in fact run.

“I think the pressure on [Hoeven] is pretty intense, and that he’s going to be convinced that this is what he needs to do, both by the [Bush] administration and Republican folks in the state,” said Eric Aasmundstad, president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. “I’d be kind of surprised if he didn’t run.”

Hoeven, with approval ratings near 70 percent, has declined to squelch the speculation. And with his popularity and incredible statewide name identification, he has the luxury of waiting until as late as the March 2006 Republican nominating convention to announce his candidacy.

“He’s not going to speculate on any future political plans at the moment,” Hoeven spokesman Don Larson said this week. “The governor is focused on his job.”

If Hoeven decides not to run, he would need to make his decision known this fall to allow the second-tier Republican candidates enough time to build the type of campaign operation, raise the kind of money and garner the kind of name recognition required to take on a popular incumbent like Conrad.

Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove is scheduled on Saturday to address the 57 members of the North Dakota Republican Party State Committee at its quarterly meeting in Fargo, and is the special guest at a state GOP fundraiser set for that evening.

Hoeven is scheduled to attend Saturday’s festivities, and it is safe to assume that Rove will try to encourage him to seek the Senate seat. Republicans with ties to the White House called the governor a formidable candidate who could count on strong national party support if he runs.

Jason Stverak, executive director of the state Republican Party, acknowledged that North Dakota Republicans are actively trying to recruit Hoeven to challenge Conrad, a third-term incumbent elected in 2000 with 61 percent of the vote.

“I know the governor is considering all of his options,” Stverak said.

One individual who doesn’t think Hoeven will run is Conrad, though the Senator isn’t worried if he does, said his communications director Chris Thorne.

That didn’t stop Conrad from beginning to air television ads statewide this past weekend touting his success in convincing the BRAC commission to keep North Dakota military installations open and his work on a federal highway bill that allocated $1.5 billion to the Sioux State, among other accomplishments.

Thorne said the timing of the 60-second spot — which featured prominent North Dakota Republican office holders praising Conrad’s performance in the Senate — had nothing to do with the release of a recent poll that suggested Hoeven would fare well in a matchup with the Senator.

Conrad’s office began filming the ad in August, and its purpose was simply to update North Dakotans on what the Senator has been working on in Washington, D.C., Thorne said.

“Sen. Conrad believes that these things generally take care of themselves. If people think you’re doing your job, things work out fine,” Thorne said.

Rick Gion, communications director for the North Dakota Democratic Party, said voters in his state would prefer Hoeven put the kibosh on the speculation by announcing he intends to fulfill his campaign pledge to serve out his second term, which ends at the end of 2008.

Gion also suggested that Rove is unwelcome in North Dakota, as is the meddling in state politics by national Republicans.

Rove “is the dirtiest man in politics right now, and under investigation for illegal activity. A person like that does not belong in North Dakota,” Gion said. “We’re a state of strong values, and he does not hold our values.”

Observers of North Dakota politics believe a Conrad-Hoeven race could be among the bloodiest in state history.

Conrad already is raising money at a higher clip than he did in 2000, and he reported having nearly $2.7 million cash on hand at the end of June for a race in a state with a population of just over 634,000.

Hoeven, according to those familiar with him, aspires to more than just the governorship. With his popularity at its apex and nothing more prestigious than governor to run for in North Dakota besides the Senate, many believe the timing for him to run might never be better.

“I think it would be a knock-down, drag-out fight that North Dakota has never seen before,” said Nick Baurhoft, a political science professor at North Dakota State University.

Should Hoeven decide against running, Republicans would probably choose from among seven statewide and legislative office holders.

Among them: Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark, Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer, House Majority Leader Rick Berg and Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem.

But none of them is considered to have a chance against Conrad, even though the state gave President Bush 63 percent of the vote last year.

“If anyone has a shot at beating Sen. Conrad, it would be Gov. Hoeven,” Aasmundstad said.

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