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Majority in North Dakota oppose 'Obamacare' law

FARGO -- Sixty percent of North Dakotans who responded to a recent poll said they oppose the federal health care law nicknamed Obamacare, which U.S. Rep. Rick Berg and fellow Republicans are using to wage war on Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in the state's highly visible U.S. Senate race.

Commissioned by Forum Communications Co., the Essman/Research random poll of 500 likely voters asked: "Do you support or oppose the health care plan, the Affordable Care Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama?"

The pollster didn't use the word "Obamacare" -- a term coined by foes of the law - unless the respondent said he or she didn't know what the pollster was talking about, said Deborah Stearns, vice president and marketing research director for the Des Moines, Iowa, polling firm.

Thirty-two percent of those polled said they support Obamacare, and 8 percent were undecided.

Opposition to the law was nearly unanimous among those who identified themselves as Republicans, with 93 percent opposing it and only 4 percent in favor of it.

A vast majority of Democrats -- 87 percent -- said they support the law, while 10 percent oppose it.

Among those who identified themselves as independents, 56 percent said they oppose the law and 32 percent support it. Twelve percent said they were either undecided or didn't know enough about the law to take a stance on it.

Republicans are spending big on campaign ads to try to make Obamacare a key issue for voters in North Dakota, which has one of several closely contested races that will determine which party controls the Senate after Nov. 6.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and super PACs have pounded Heitkamp for supporting the Affordable Care Act, claiming it will reduce care for seniors.

It's also been a primary theme in Berg's effort to paint Heitkamp as a blind follower of President Barack Obama, who was found in the same Essman/Research poll to be trailing GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney by 25 percentage points in North Dakota.

Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, noted the strategy has worked for Berg before: In 2010, he rode a wave of anti-Obamacare sentiment and disgruntlement about a weak economy to a 10-point victory over incumbent U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy.

"I think Berg is wise to bring it up, because it's clear that, if you look just in general, there's been strong opposition to it across North Dakota," Jendrysik said. "A lot elderly people are afraid of its provisions and concerned about its effects. So yeah, I think it's a very wise strategy to pursue."

But Jendrysik said he doesn't believe it will be a decisive issue in the race.

"They might be opposed to it, but I don't know that the average voter actually has been affected by it yet," he said. "I think other issues may play a bigger role," such as energy and which candidate can bring home federal funding and best defend North Dakota's interests in Washington.

Heitkamp has attacked Berg for wanting to repeal Obamacare in its entirety.

During their debate in Fargo earlier this month, she repeated her desire to amend the law while keeping key provisions such as coverage for people with preexisting conditions and the "frontier states" amendment, which corrects inequities in Medicare reimbursement rates to hospitals and doctors in North Dakota and several other heavily rural states.

"It needs to be fixed. I have said there is good and there is bad," she said.

But when she first started saying that has been the subject of attack ads. Berg's campaign continues to blast Heitkamp for headlining rallies and praising the law after Congress passed it in spring 2010. At the time, she called its passage "a legacy vote." Two years later, Heitkamp said publicly for the first time that she's "often said that it's not a perfect law."

Berg argues the law will burden small businesses and put the government between doctors and their patients.

Both Berg and Heitkamp are married to physicians.