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Some experts also say North Dakotans may have reservations about his decision to run for higher office so soon after arriving in Washington.

“There is a strong egalitarian kind of fairness streak here that people should wait their turn and that everybody should look out for each other and people should not try to get too big for their britches,” Mr. Wood said.

Mr. Berg said his decision to run for Senate was based on the need for his party to take control of the Senate, which since last year repeatedly has blocked measures passed in the Republican-led House.

“In order to change Washington we need to change the Senate,” Mr. Berg told The Washington Times. “We changed the conversation in the U.S. House … and by changing the U.S. Senate we can turn that conversation into action.”

The Berg campaign and its allies have portrayed Ms. Heitkamp as a liberal “Obama Democrat” who has supported the president’s health care law.

But the Democrat has shied away from any full-throated endorsements of the president. She has said that while she is opposed to repealing his controversial health care reforms, “there are some serious problems with the law” that need fixing.

Ms. Heitkamp also favors the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a proposed project that would bring oil to the U.S. from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, the administration has shunned.

“She has been successful so far in defining herself and not letting Republicans saddle her with the Obama label,” Mr. Gonzales said.

The oil boom impact

Western North Dakota’s oil fields loom as an X factor in the race. With both candidates holding similar views on oil, coal and energy, it’s difficult to predict how oil industry workers will vote. And because many workers hail from other states, it’s uncertain if they even would vote in the state.

Further complicating the issue is North Dakota’s easy voter requirements, which say residents only have to live in the state 30 days prior to an election to cast a ballot.

“It’s not your normal stereotypical Democrat vs. Republican (race) where the fossil fuel industry wouldn’t like the Democrat,” said Chad Oban, a North Dakota Democratic strategist who isn’t working on the Heitkamp campaign. Ms. Heitkamp “has as great relationship with those folks out west who work in both the coal and oil fields.”

The surprisingly close race has forced Mr. Berg, the GOP and its allies to spend more time and money on the race than expected. Outside groups, including super PACs, have poured more than $8.6 million into the contest — an unusually high amount for a small population state like North Dakota that hasn’t had a competitive Senate race since the 1980s.

Experts say that despite Mrs. Heitkamp’s strengths and the challenges facing Mr. Berg, the conservative political climate of North Dakota — and Mr. Romney’s popularity there — likely will push Mr. Berg to victory.

“I would be surprised if Heitkamp were to win,” Mr. Bauroth said. “I’d expect there will be more Republicans to come home to Berg than stick with Heitkamp at this point.

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