By David Catanese
Democrat Heidi Heitkamp emerged from the North Dakota Senate debate with a unique approach: aligning herself more with Sarah Palin than President Barack Obama at least on energy.
In the first debate with Republican Rep. Rick Berg, Heitkamp insisted she would be an independent voice and took pains to separate herself from top leaders in her party. That tact couldn't have been clearer when she wholeheartedly embraced Palin's approach to energy production in her oil rich state,
"I think "Drill, Baby Drill' is the way we need to do it," Heitkamp said in response to a moderator's question during a 50-minute North Dakota Broadcasters debate in Bismarck Wednesday morning. "This is an area where I have vehemently disagreed with the administration. They've walked away from coal. They're hostile to oil."
Heitkamp has good reason to articulate as many Republican-sounding positions as possible. North Dakota's open Senate seat is critical for control of the upper chamber, and Republicans are trying to link her to Obama as much as possible in a state that almost certainly will overwhelmingly vote for Mitt Romney in November.
Heitkamp entered the debate ready for the line of attack and countered by portraying Berg, a freshman lawmaker, as an ineffective, uncompromising legislator unable to break Washington's gridlock. Berg had only mentioned Obama once and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid twice when Heitkamp dove into a well-prepared defense.
"Congressman Berg will repeatedly talk about Harry Reid and Barack Obama, and I find it interesting, because this morning, when I woke up and brushed my teeth, I looked in the mirror and I did not see a tall, African-American, skinny man," she said. "So let's make it clear that my priorities are North Dakota priorities. That you cannot run this campaign by simply talking about a political party. You have to talk about ideas."
But Berg returned to his big picture argument about changing power in the Senate, drilling home the point during an exchange on energy.
"The reality and the problem is, if we're going to get these things done, we've got to change Washington. And we can't do that without changing the Senate," he said.
Heitkamp -- a former attorney general and tax commissioner -- made an effort to underline areas where she's broken with party orthodoxy.
She called the Senate's inability to craft a budget "deplorable," and she came out in favor of a balanced budget amendment -- a position many Democrats have derided as "extreme." After reciting a laundry list of provisions in the health care law she supports, Heitkamp acknowledged "there's bad" parts that need to be fixed.
She dismissed environmentalist concerns about fracking -- the hydraulic technology used to expand natural gas production -- as "junk science. "People who say they're against fracking don't even know what it is," she said.
After her line of defense at the top of the debate, she never mentioned the current president again. Yet she did laud former President Bill Clinton for producing the last balanced budget in the country and singed former President George W. Bush for attempting to privatize Social Security.