- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota’s trio of Republican governor hopefuls are preparing for their first debate, less than a month before party activists meet at their state convention to endorse a candidate.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, former Microsoft Corp. executive Doug Burgum and Bismarck state Rep. Rick Becker will promote their respective visions Thursday night in Bismarck.

Stenehjem, 63, a former Grand Forks lawyer and longtime state legislator, was first elected in 2000 and has been easily re-elected ever since. Stenehjem has a wide geographic base and name recognition, having lived in western, eastern and central North Dakota.

Burgum, 59, built Great Plains Software in Fargo from a startup to a billion-dollar company that he later sold. He’s credited with enhancing the status of North Dakota’s largest city but not very well-known outside of it. Burgum has said he will still run in the June primary even if he’s not endorsed at the convention April 1-3 and has said he expects Stenehjem to get that endorsement.

For Becker, a 51-year-old plastic surgeon and commercial real estate developer in Bismarck, Thursday’s debate is a critical chance to impress conservative delegates in the highly red state, which has not had a Democratic governor since 1988. Becker says he won’t run without the party endorsement.

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THE TIMES, THEY’RE A CHANGING

North Dakota’s fortunes have long risen and fallen with oil, and they’re currently falling. The state has seen a dramatic drop in tax collections as crude oil prices have plunged, and outgoing Gov. Jack Dalrymple last month ordered deep cuts to government agencies and a massive raid on savings to make up a more than $1 billion budget shortfall. Expect the candidates Thursday to address North Dakota’s No. 1 issue: The state’s economic slowdown. And watch for clashes on how the state got into this spot and how each plans to diversify North Dakota’s economy and rebuild its treasury.

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CONSERVATIVE CONTEST

All three men are likely to tout their conservative principles in a state that hasn’t been carried by a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But they’re not equal. Burgum is a longtime Republican supporter but has been critical of the GOP-led Legislature’s stance on social issues, including its failure to pass a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Becker claims to be the most conservative of the three, but any skirmishing on social issues may find him explaining his vote in favor of the discrimination ban. Becker also opposed the state’s ban on abortion at six weeks of pregnancy. Stenehjem defended that law, which was ultimately struck down without ever taking effect. He says he’s unlikely to support any future restrictions on abortion given recent court rulings.

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HOTTEST TICKET IN TOWN

The candidates will debate Thursday at a century-old theater in downtown Bismarck that has hosted the likes of former presidents John F. Kennedy and Woodrow Wilson. Roz Leighton, executive director of the North Dakota GOP party, said it’s the first-ever party-sponsored debate ahead of a state convention and seating went quickly. All of the 750 free tickets at the Belle Mehus Auditorium had been taken by Wednesday afternoon, she said. The debate will be broadcast statewide.

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“BROMANCE?”

Stenehjem and Burgum have been longtime friends. Stenehjem and Burgum’s late brother, Brad, were roommates during at the University of North Dakota law school. Brad Burgum also served as treasurer for Stenehjem’s successful bid for state House in 1976. Stenehjem said it’s unlikely either campaign will get prickly toward the other.

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DEBATE ATTIRE

Reporters have friendly wagers on whether Burgum will wear a suit and tie to the debate. The multimillionaire almost never does, and sported jeans and a comfortable shirt to announce his gubernatorial bid in January. Stenehjem and Becker are among the best-dressed at the state Capitol.

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