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POLITICAL HAY

FARGO, N.D. - A rematch between North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson and his Republican challenger, Doug Goehring, seemed inevitable.

FARGO, N.D. - A rematch between North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson and his Republican challenger, Doug Goehring, seemed inevitable.

Goehring, a farmer from Menoken, N.D., nearly unseated Johnson in 2004, falling 2,000 votes short in an election that would be followed by a 2006 election, as the state shifts away from stacking elections during the presidential cycle.

Goehring announced his candidacy Jan. 26, while Johnson announced he's running for re-election Feb. 7.

Since then, both candidates have peppered the landscape with their big blue-on-white, 4-by-8 plywood signs. (Johnson changed his colors for this year's race).

The issues are largely the same, but the political climate is different. There is no presidential race, and Republican underdogs are running in state congressional races.

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Last time, Goehring campaigned especially hard in the final two weeks and garnered the endorsement of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, North Dakota's largest newspaper.

This time, the two will have appeared at more than a dozen joint appearances - forums and debates.

The Johnson-Goehring match-up is a contest between different philosophies, but it's also about performance - the professional record of each individual.

Both have solid farming credentials, though Goehring emphasizes the "current" nature of his credentials. He's still living off the farm and Johnson has become removed, he'd say.

Johnson has his history of Democratic activism, his strong affiliation with the left-leaning North Dakota Farmers Union.

Goehring, a vice president of the right-leaning Republican-dominated North Dakota Farm Bureau, is president and chairman of the board of Nodak Mutual Insurance Co.

The two are fairly consistent on most issues, differing largely in degree. In practicality, however, the election is about whether voters believe it's better to have a Democrat who stands alone among Republican state officeholders or another Republican to further that party's momentum and priorities.

For his part, Johnson says he senses a "palpable difference" in the public mood this time around. While the ag commissioner isn't directly involved at the national level, he thinks the race will be affected by the scorn for the Bush administration over at least three policies - opposition to farm programs in general, promotion of unpopular bilateral trade deals and recent disaster legislation in particular.

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Goehring, too, seems optimistic.

While past ag commissioner races have emphasized "value-added," there are two issues that likely will change minds this time - livestock development and renewable energy.

-- Livestock development - During Johnson's 10 years in office, the state's dairy cow numbers are down by half and production is down by a third. Hog numbers are down 20 percent while breeding pigs are up. Cattle on feed and total cattle are down by 10 percent or more.

Johnson has committed a staff person entirely to livestock development, but large-scale, commercial livestock enterprises tend to run into township zoning that can be more strict than state rules.

When discussing the livestock slide, Johnson attributes some of the livestock reluctance to the "graying" of North Dakota farmers. He talks about three "essential components" to livestock development. Those are complying with the anti-corporate farming law, Environmental Protection Agency rules and "local" support.

"I'm a firm believer in local control - always have been. I think you nee to be responsible for what you do," Johnson said in an Oct. 2 forum/debate in Williston, N.D. "Government that is closest to people governs the best; it's who I am and what I believe. It would take a long time to convince me you should take that authority away from local zoning boards."

Johnson contends there are "lots of places" in the state that are welcoming livestock enterprises, but those who have tried to site projects often face stiff township-level opposition that can be based as much on perception as scientific environmental fact. Johnson claims some credit for the development of model zoning ordinances in the state.

"We've got it in place. We just have to figure out how to get counties and locals to use it," Johnson says.

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Goehring praises the model zoning ordinances and seems to pin hopes on education. He says "emotions are driving decisions" and that is having a detrimental effect on the state. "We need to develop it. If we even got to the same point as South Dakota, we'd add 6 (percent) or 7 percent to our state's economy."

Goehring says livestock is important because of cheap existing feeds in the state and because of the renewable energy.

"I don't ever like to take away one's rights," Goehring says, mentioning a "problem" for imposing stricter limits at a township or county level and its impact on the community for either for local taxes to enforce stricter regulations, or the impact of keeping livestock out.

"You're going to impose more and more taxes on that community to enforce those (stricter) regulations. That's a huge concern. People out here who cry Chicken Little, the sky is falling (when livestock comes in) don't understand what the ramifications are."

Johnson also promotes the sale of state-inspected beef across state lines as well as country-of-origin labeling at the federal level. He helped push for a North Dakota branded beef program in the last Legislature. It got no money, but the department will try to promote something.

-- Renewable energy - Both candidates try to outdo the other in terms of pro-renewable rhetoric.

Johnson is different in that he favors a 10 percent mandatory "standard" for ethanol content in North Dakota's gasoline by 2008, 20 percent by 2013 and 10 percent biodiesel standard by 2013. He also wants a $5 million dedicated fund to establish a Biomass Fund for converting switchgrass to ethanol. He wants to increase state funding for renewable energy development from $4.5 million to $20 million in the next biennium.

Goehring, playing to the Republicans who generally oppose mandates and perhaps to the oil interests who help fuel Republican politics in the state, talks about kicking the mandate issue upstairs - to the federal level.

Johnson says Republican leadership tends to oppose mandates or "standards." He says the House would have passed a bill by Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Wolford, in the last Legislature if it had been given a "fair chance."

Johnson makes a lot of the fact that Goehring has spoken in favor of - and opposed to - ethanol mandates, but Goehring says he simply was speaking on behalf of the Farm Bureau, for which he serves as vice president.

While not opposing a state standard - and not promoting it - Goehring says it's more important to go for a federal standard. This is despite the fact that Minnesota has had a 10 percent ethanol mandate since 1997 and that the Republican governor has proposed a 20 percent standard by 2013.

Separately, Goehring proposed an income tax credit for ethanol plants that would install "super centrifuges" to remove more corn oil that can be converted to biodiesel fuel.

Goehring presumably would be in a better position to work with a Republican Legislature on renewable matters, as the two-thirds majority has not gone out of its way to support Johnson's proposals.

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