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North Dakota Democrat Heitkamp scrambles to catch Cramer

In this Oct. 11, 2018, photo, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp talks to North Dakota State University students during a campaign event at the Fargo, N.D. college. Heitkamp is considered the underdog in her race against Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is running for Senate this time in a state that President Donald Trump won by 36 points. Heitkamp told the students that they can make a difference in the final outcome. (AP Photo/Dave Kolpack)

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Heidi Heitkamp squeezed dozens of hands and posed for pictures with college students at North Dakota State University recently, bubbling with characteristic exuberance that belied the Democratic senator’s uncertain future.

“I want everybody to just do something for me,” Heitkamp said, her voice hoarse. “Everybody stand up! I want you to reach as high as you can. Now, I want you to reach about six inches higher. That’s what we’ve got to do to win! We’ve got to go higher.”

An already tenuous bid for a second term has taken on new urgency for Heitkamp since she voted against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. Heitkamp is scrambling to find her footing amid fears that the race against Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer is slipping away, and with it Democrats’ slim hopes of a Senate majority.

“Are we facing some headwinds? Yep,” Heitkamp said in an Associated Press interview. “But I’ve faced headwinds before, and won.”

Heitkamp has been betting for months that her image as an independent collaborator — someone who could go along with President Donald Trump, but challenge him when needed — could carry her to another term in GOP-heavy North Dakota.

Trailing in polls, including her own campaign’s, with three weeks until Election Day, Heitkamp plans to essentially camp out in North Dakota, especially its more politically independent eastern side.

She plans to lean harder into the same strategy, relying heavily on the economic hit her heavy agricultural and manufacturing export state has taken under the Trump administration’s escalating trade war with China. She calls it the “darkest cloud on the horizon” for North Dakota.

Casting herself as a champion of farmers and export-reliant businesses and workers, she is using the issue to step up her months-long criticism of Cramer’s unfaltering allegiance to Trump, arguing it comes at a cost to North Dakotans.

Heitkamp also is weighing whether to launch a direct advertising attack on Cramer for often awkward comments on sensitive subjects, especially related to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Cramer downplayed California professor Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, saying the episode fell short of a rape and didn’t involve a workplace superior and subordinate.

He later referred to the #MeToo movement as “this movement toward victimization,” and referred to his mother, wife and daughters as “tough people.”

Cramer later told the AP, “That was just a broad statement about our whole culture. Everybody’s got to be a victim now.”

Attacking Cramer over his Kavanaugh comments would be a risky gambit in a state where Heitkamp lost support from independent men turned off by the continuing discussion of the allegations against Kavanaugh, but has signed on hundreds of new campaign volunteers since she voted against him.

“I guess you could say, ‘Are you perpetuating the discussion?’ I don’t know,” Heitkamp said. “When people say things that are hurtful to victims, to people who have suffered incredible victimization, I’m going to call it out and I don’t care what the consequences are.”

North Dakota voters “want somebody they know will acquit themselves in Washington in a way that will make them proud, are respectful and cautious in their criticisms,” she said.

It’s possible the critique of Cramer’s comments, particularly considering Heitkamp says her mother was a teen victim of sexual assault, could spark turnout among sympathetic women, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said.

“There’s potential to mobilize women, especially baby boomer women, who have the same reactions and same experiences to their own moms,” Lake said.

But it could also distract voters from Heitkamp’s effort to portray herself as above partisanship, said Chris Pack of the GOP’s Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Even if voters were indifferent on the Kavanaugh vote, it brings up all the tactics that were used.”

As a Democrat seeking re-election in a state Trump won by 36 percentage points, Heitkamp is the most vulnerable of the 10 senators in her party seeking re-election in places the Republican candidate carried in 2016. Democrats would need to win nearly all of the 10 and pick up some Senate seats now held by Republicans to eke out a majority on Nov. 6. The GOP currently outnumbers Democrats 51-49 in the Senate.

And so, Friday, Heitkamp trekked the 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Fargo, past fields of October snow, to Gwinner, population 900, and the Bobcat Company plant where about 1,200 employees make loaders and excavators that are shipped around the world.

Near the employee entrance during the 3 p.m. shift change, Heitkamp shook hands and spoke briefly to workers as they passed, mostly men. One said to her, “I would shake your hand but I could be accused of sexual harassment and that could be enough to convict somebody. Right? Right?” Heitkamp smiled without answering.

She later told the AP that the response to her vote had been decidedly positive from plant workers. Heitkamp had said, including in an ad she aired explaining her vote, that she questioned Kavanaugh’s truthfulness and found his testimony to be angry and political.

Heitkamp then stopped in at the Overtime Bar in Gwinner and had a beer with the 50 other patrons — almost all of them Bobcat employees — who posed for pictures with her and asked for autographs.

In the bar, Travis Bultema, who leans Democrat but crosses party lines sometimes, said he had doubts about Kavanaugh. He supported Heitkamp’s decision but said, when asked, that the vote might hurt her politically.

“Unfortunately, I think it may,” he said.

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Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press reporter James MacPherson contributed from Bismarck, North Dakota.

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