FARGO, N.D. (AP) - When Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was choosing her campaign headquarters, Fargo was the obvious choice. She grew up in the area, it's nearly twice as large as any other North Dakota city and it's the biggest potential source of liberal-minded voters in the strongly conservative state.
The Democrat's chances to win a second term by defeating Republican challenger Kevin Cramer likely rest on her ability to pile up huge margins in Fargo. It's why her barnstorming "Bring It Home Heidi" statewide bus tour in the final days was set to end Monday right back on home turf.
"Obviously I do better in Fargo. This is where I'm from," said Heitkamp, who grew up in tiny Mantador, 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the south.
Heading into the final weekend of the campaign, Heitkamp was widely seen as trailing Cramer in a race Democrats were desperate to hold for any chance at taking control of the Senate. Former Vice President Joe Biden helped kick off the bus tour in Fargo on Thursday, urging voters to turn out.
In winning her first term six years ago, Heitkamp led Republican Rick Berg by nearly 10,000 in Cass County, which includes Fargo. She won by just 3,000 votes. Her campaign has said its internal polling shows her doing even better there this year, but officials declined to provide specific numbers they think she'd need to defeat Cramer.
The huge cache of votes in Fargo and Cass County isn't something the Cramer campaign is prepared to concede. Though Cramer's strength is in the more rural west of the state, he has made multiple stops in the Fargo area and was scheduled to tailgate in the city Saturday before North Dakota State's football game.
Fargo is more diverse and younger than the rest of North Dakota, with the university's roughly 14,000 students and a diversified economy. Cass County has grown by about 21,000 people since Heitkamp's 2012 victory - growth largely paralleled in the oil-producing west by thousands of mostly conservative-leaning workers - and now has nearly one-fourth of the state's population. Most is in the cities of Fargo and West Fargo.
A sprawling Microsoft campus employs about 1,700 workers, including many from abroad, and newer tech startups have popped up. In a city once best known for the Coen brothers' movie of the same name, Fargo's flourishing downtown now features many chic restaurants, shops, art galleries and hotels.
"People are starting to choose Fargo and then they are finding opportunities here," said Greg Tehven, executive director of Emerging Prairie, a nonprofit that provides assistance to young entrepreneurs. "More and more young folks that are creative and solutions-oriented are making this place home and continue to add to the social and creative fabric."
Heitkamp's campaign manager, Libby Schneider, said they have focused on college students, young families and new immigrants, which is the fastest-growing group in Fargo. To that end, Heitkamp events this year have ranged from hanging out at the Red River Valley Fair, speaking at a new Americans rally, talking with North Dakota State University's Young Democrats and participating in Fargo's gay pride parade.
Although Fargo is North Dakota's most liberal city, Cass County voters went decidedly for Donald Trump just two years ago. And not all of the younger downtowners are Democrats.
Nathan Joraanstad, who helped his brother start tech firm Myriad Mobile, is a Republican backing Cramer. He acknowledges that some Fargo residents might be more "liberal-minded," particularly in downtown, but the fact that Trump carried Cass County shows that "either the demographics have changed or people's mindsets have changed."
Cramer said he didn't view any city in the state as more or less important to his campaign.
"Every North Dakotan counts the same as every other," he said.
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