- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Longtime attorney general and party-endorsed candidate Wayne Stenehjem touted his experience while Fargo businessman Doug Burgum vowed to shake up state government as the two Republicans vying to be the next governor of North Dakota met in Fargo on Wednesday for their final full-fledged debate.

Burgum, a onetime Microsoft Corp. executive and now an entrepreneur and philanthropist, tried to paint Stenehjem as part of an establishment that has done a poor job at managing money and has put the state’s future in doubt.

“We need someone who has business experience, who has managed this size of an operation,” Burgum said.

Stenehjem said on many occasions that the state is “well-positioned” to handle the downturn in oil and farm prices.

“Ag and energy prices will come back, just like they always do,” Stenehjem said. “And this is not the 1980s. Our economy is diversified and our unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation. We will diversify even further.”

The primary winner will be heavily favored to become governor in the GOP-dominated state. Burgum took the rare step of entering the June 14 election after Republicans gave the nod to Stenehjem at the group’s state convention.

The candidates continued sparring over handling the ups and downs in the oil patch. After Burgum touted the hometown credentials of his running mate, Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford, Stenehjem noted that his family homesteaded in McKenzie County and he grew up in Williston.

“I am well aware of the needs, the issues and the concerns,” Stenehjem said.

Burgum, who had the final comments on the issue, chided Stenehjem’s plan for economic recovery by describing it as “waiting for the prices to come back.”

Later, when asked about lawsuits the state lost regarding abortion and the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux nickname, Burgum criticized Stenehjem on the attorney general’s office spending. Stenehjem replied that those funding increases went toward enforcement to fight human trafficking, drug trafficking and crimes against children.

“The Legislature felt it was worthwhile to invest in public safety and I think the citizens agreed. Those are worthwhile expenditures because it helps North Dakota remain the safest in the nation,” Stenehjem said.

Burgum, who once again had the last word, said there has been a dramatic increase in crime and Stenehjem’s office has not produced the results from the state appropriation. Stenehjem shook his head but was not allowed to respond.

Stenehjem and Burgum agreed, for the most part, on several issues, including support of a Red River diversion project in Fargo, criticism of President Barack Obama’s directive on use of restrooms for transgender students, immigration and refugees, teacher shortages, and support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Burgum did poke at Stenehjem for refusing to mention Trump’s name while pledging his support.

“I thought you knew the name of the guy I was talking about was Donald Trump,” Stenehjem replied.

Campaign officials for the two men say it’s the last traditional debate planned before the primary election. Stenehjem and Burgum are scheduled to appear together for an hour-long radio show on June 10 that is being billed as a conversation.

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