A North Dakota Evening to Remember, Thanks to Candidate Star Power
By Alec MacGillis
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- As proof of how hard-fought and drawn-out the Democratic primary has become, it's hard to top this: the two remaining candidates both detoured from the campaign trail Friday evening to address the state Democratic convention in North Dakota.
No, not South Dakota, which has yet to hold its caucus, a June 3 contest that could yet prove pivotal. North Dakota, which already held its caucus on February 5 -- and which wasn't exactly a delegate gold mine to begin with (it awards 21), helping explain why neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama campaigned in the state, though Obama invested in a strong organization that helped him win 61 percent of the vote.
So what in the world were the two candidates doing, alighting in the Alerus Center Arena, the cavernous home of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux football team, which was packed for the occasion with 17,000 people (more than for any non-sports event since Cher came in 2002)?
As best as could be determined from the campaigns and the state delegates on the convention floor, it came down to this: Obama was here as the keynote speaker, and to speak at a separate fundraiser for the state's Democrats, in order to return a favor to Sen. Kent Conrad, one of Obama's earliest supporters in the Senate.
More broadly, he came to bring thanks to the state as a whole, which delivered him eight of its 13 pledged delegates and six of its seven superdelegates (one superdelegate, the state party chair, is still officially neutral though suspected to be leaning to Obama, while an extra unpledged delegate is to named during the convention). And Obama may just have been looking ahead to November, when some Democratic optimists speculate that he, if he is the nominee, could put in play a state that voted 63-36 percent for George Bush four years ago.
And Clinton? The best theory going was that she came because she wanted to keep Obama from trying to poach an extra pledged delegate or two, and to keep his allies from maneuvering to get relatively soft Clinton supporters named to be her delegates in Denver, in hopes that they might switch to him later.
Obama has not yet flipped any pledged delegates from Clinton elsewhere, but Clinton says she is not averse to trying, since pledged delegates, while expected to follow their state's vote breakdown, are not legally bound to do so. "There is no such thing as a pledged delegate ," she said at a press conference Thursday. "The whole point is for delegates, however they are chosen, to really ask themselves who would be the best president and who would be our best nominee against Senator [John] McCain. And I think that process goes all the way to the convention."
It all made for quite a spectacle, unlike most anything North Dakota has seen since the excitement of a decade-plus ago, when the Coen Brothers went wild with a woodchipper in "Fargo" in 1996 and Grand Forks suffered a devastating flood and fire a year later.
The Grand Forks Herald provided breathless coverage of the showdown, including a blog posting announcing that Obama's plane had touched down. "Obama was aboard a Boeing 757 with a large American flag painted on the side of the plane," the paper reported. "Obama did not go through the terminal, rather his plane was off-loaded on the tarmac, and he and his group left the airport in several SUVs."
Even the even-keeled Conrad was giddy. "I just want [Obama] to know that this is a fairly typical turnout for our state conventions," he deadpanned, introducing the Illinois senator. "Sometimes we have a few more, sometimes we have a few less, I'd say, give or take 15,000." Turning serious, he said, "This is the biggest political gathering in this state in my adult lifetime."
Conrad and the state's two other congressmen, Sen. Byron Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, were sure to say nice things about Clinton, who would arrive an hour later, and her name was met with solid applause mixed with some boos. Obama entered to a roar, and wasted no time in rubbing in his North Dakota edge, as if trying to remind the hall how little time Clinton had spent in states like North Dakota until now and preempt any points she might score for her appearance.
"I know there's been some talk that maybe states like North Dakota don't count so much in this process," he said, referring to Clinton's downplaying of Obama's victories in red states and caucuses. "Some people think that the Democrats can't win in North Dakota so we shouldn't be putting so much time in here. Some people think that it's a flyover state, that it's a caucus state and caucus states aren't fair. Well, we didn't fly over North Dakota -- we landed ... We competed in this state and we will keep competing in it all the way until November."
Might Obama really have a shot to take the state in the general election? Lonny Winrich, a Clinton supporter from Grand Forks, thought it wasn't out of the question. "He has an uncanny ability to generate a lot of excitement. That could do it," he said. Ron Braaten, a former principal from Lisbon, N.D., agreed, saying that North Dakota seemed to be changing at just the right moment for Obama. "We're kind of looking for new things here," he said. "We're kind of waking up."
A true face-to-face Great Plains confrontation was averted as Obama flew out of town for Missoula, Montana shortly before Clinton arrived at the convention. But -- never fear -- another head to head awaits tonight, at a Montana Democrats' dinner that both are speaking at, this time in closer succession. Call this one the Battle of Butte.
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