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North Dakota's remade caucuses tested in Biden, Sanders race

FARGO, N.D. – New rules for North Dakota's presidential caucuses are likely to drive up turnout and could shrink Bernie Sanders' organizational advantage over Joe Biden when the state's Democratic voters get their say next week in what has essentially become a two-man race.

North Dakota is the smallest prize of the six states holding caucuses or primaries Tuesday, with only 14 pledged delegates at stake. That pales in comparison with Michigan's 125, Washington's 89 or Missouri's 68. As a result, North Dakota hasn't gotten much attention from either candidate.

What's new for North Dakota voters in 2020 is that the system is more like a primary than a traditional caucus. People are free to vote and leave. Democrats can vote at 14 locations across the state, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. CST and 10 a.m. to 6 pm. MST. Republicans will have seven polling places open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. local time, where voters can express their support for President Donald Trump .

And in a boon to rural voters, mail-in ballots will be accepted. Alex Rohr, spokesman for the state Democratic party, said about 3,100 mail-in ballots were requested, though the number returned won't be counted until Tuesday night. Fewer than 3,400 people voted in the Democratic caucus in 2016, so turnout is expected to be much higher this time.

“I think North Dakota has a chance to weigh in and really send a message to the rest of the country,” Rohr said. “It is a really big opportunity for North Dakota Democrats, liberals, progressives or anyone else who is thinking about voting in the primary."

Sanders supporters hope their grass-roots organizing leads to a repeat of his caucus victory from 2016. But the new rules that make participation easier give Biden an opportunity to build on his momentum coming out of Super Tuesday despite his lack of a ground game in the state.

One of North Dakota's most prominent Democrats, former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, has endorsed Biden and said she hoped her support — and that of neighboring Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota — would make a difference for the former vice president.

“What I’m really encouraging is people to weigh in,” Heitkamp said. “Even though North Dakota Democrats frequently believe they’re not the most relevant vote in the country as it relates to Democratic politics, it can really make a difference this time around.”

Heitkamp, who previously had endorsed Klobuchar, noted that Biden appeared twice in North Dakota to support her unsuccessful re-election bid in 2018, and drew big crowds each time.

“I expect Vice President Biden will do very well,” she said.

Biden also has the endorsement of North Dakota House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, of Fargo, the first openly gay person elected to the Legislature, who had been supporting Pete Buttigieg.

“When I look at the landscape of North Dakota, I think at this point most North Dakotans are going to support Joe Biden” in the caucus, Boschee said. “Senator Sanders still has strong support from his base but hasn't been able to grow his coalition like Joe did.”

The Vermont senator is counting on his “tons and tons and tons of volunteers” in North Dakota, said his campaign's state co-chair, Zac Echola, of Fargo. They've already been canvassing, phone-banking and reaching out to people one-on-one, he said. And they'll be making a big push this weekend.

“The Bernie campaign is really driven by passionate volunteers, and that's not just in North Dakota, it's everywhere,” Echola said.

One of those Sanders volunteers is Rep. Ruth Buffalo, of Fargo, the first Native American Democratic woman elected to the Legislature. She is supporting Sanders and is not fazed by Biden’s comeback on Super Tuesday.

“One thing about opinions: everybody has them,” Buffalo said. “We’ve definitely had some twists and turns recently, but we are still upbeat and working toward the future we want and can have with Sanders.”

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Karnowski reported from St. Paul, Minnesota.