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Dems cry foul over Forum poll results

FARGO -- National and state Democrats quickly sought to discredit a Forum Communications Co. poll today that showed Republican Rep. Rick Berg with a slim lead over Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota's hotly contested U.S. Senate race.

However, multiple political analysts say the poll -- the first independent survey released on the race -- is likely on target in describing what has become one of the most competitive Senate contests in the country.

Forum Communications' poll found 51 percent of likely voters in the June 12 primary would choose Berg over Heitkamp if the general election were held at the time of the survey, conducted May 3 to May 8.

Essman/Research of Des Moines, Iowa, surveyed 500 likely North Dakota voters by telephone.

"I think your poll reflects where this race is and why," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "Berg's lead reflects the GOP tilt in the state, but the close margin is an indication of Heitkamp's strength as a candidate."

The Cook Political Report classifies North Dakota's race as a "toss-up," while other national analysts, including Larry Sabato, rank the race as one tipped in Berg's favor.

"This poll strikes me about right," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "(Presidential candidate Mitt) Romney will win North Dakota easily, and there will be coattails for Berg."

"Heitkamp is doing well for a Democrat in a presidential year, but close only counts in horseshoes," Sabato added.

Upon the poll's release at midnight, national Democratic operatives were quick to call the results an inaccurate and unfair reflection of the contest, because the poll surveyed North Dakotans who were likely to vote in the June primary.

Republicans face contested primaries for both the U.S. House and Senate races while Democratic candidates run unopposed, lending to a theory that Republicans might be more likely to vote in June than Democrats.

However, with two high-profile statewide ballot measures at stake in addition to the congressional races and local elections, the North Dakota Secretary of State's office expects a record turnout on June 12.

Heitkamp's campaign manager Tessa Gould said in a statement that the poll results were derived from "deeply flawed methods."

"This poll is unreliable, because those who will vote in a primary with contested ballot measures differ from those who go to vote in November," Gould said. "This is simply not an accurate poll of general election voters."

Jessica Taylor, senior analyst at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report said she's also "a bit skeptical" about the poll because it surveyed likely primary voters.

Looking at North Dakota's historical voter turnout, "you're looking at a very different primary turnout than a general election turnout," Taylor said.

Generally speaking, though, Rothenberg Political Report still views the race as one that will be competitive but that leans Republican right now, she said.

"Heitkamp is a very good candidate for Democrats, but she hasn't been on the ballot in 12 years," Taylor said. "Republicans ultimately see this as a seat they have to win in their calculations to have control of the Senate."

In their criticism, Democrats also claim independent voters weren't factored into Forum Communications' poll.

Of the likely voters polled, 38 percent classified themselves as Republican, 37 percent said they were independents and 23 percent described themselves as Democrats.

Specifically for the June primary contest, 59 percent said they planned to vote Republican, while 41 percent said they planned to vote Democratic.

Before today, the only poll results publicly released in the Senate race came from Democrats, who claimed as recently as late April that Heitkamp led Berg by several percentage points.

National political analysts say the Democratic backlash today is natural in a race where a candidate's image can sway impressionable voters.

"The poll had barely dropped before Democrats began pushing back hard on the methodology -- an indication of how fiercely they need buy-in from the media that this race will be competitive come fall," said Politico analyst Dave Catanese, a former broadcast journalist at KFYR-TV in Bismarck.

"After a Democratic poll showed Heitkamp with a lead, this is the first nonpartisan read of the race and I think it reflects a general consensus of where it feels like it is -- Berg holding a slight advantage," Catanese said.

Meanwhile, Republicans said today's poll validates Berg's edge in the race, calling the results "no surprise."

Berg's campaign specifically brushed off Democrats' criticism of the poll.

"It's clear they are attacking this independent poll to distract from her sinking numbers," Berg spokesman Chris Van Guilder said. "This poll is consistent with what we have seen in the past, and we feel confident it is reflective of the race."

"In the months ahead, Rick will continue working to earn the support of North Dakota voters to join those who already support his efforts to change the U.S. Senate," Van Guilder added.

Neither Berg's nor Heitkamp's campaign granted The Forum personal interviews with the candidates today.

Berg's campaign also declined to comment on whether the Forum Communications poll reflected their internal polling, which they have not released publicly.

Meanwhile, months before the general election, Berg still faces a challenge in the June 12 primary from unendorsed Republican candidate Duane Sand.

Berg beat Sand by a 3-to-1 margin in the Forum Communications poll, indicating the most realistic general election contest would be between Berg and Heitkamp.

However, Sand said he's "encouraged" because the Forum Communications poll reflects internal polling his campaign conducted six weeks ago.

Sand alleged Berg has "peaked" in polling, which indicates in November he would be more vulnerable than Sand against Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.

"He can only go down," Sand said. "That's why we need a strong conservative to go against Heidi. ... Rick is not going to solve the problems that our country faces."

A general election between Sand and Heitkamp would be a closer contest than Berg versus Heitkamp, and it could also give Democrats a better chance at victory, according to the Forum Communications poll.

Forty-eight percent of likely voters would vote for Heitkamp, while 45 percent would opt for Sand. Eight percent were undecided in that matchup.

Sand said he's pleased by that result, because "the electability issue goes out the window."

"To be within three points of a Democrat is something I've never achieved," said Sand, who's making his fourth bid for Congress in 12 years.

Kristen M. Daum is a reporter at The Forumof Fargo-

Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.