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U.S. House candidates Sen. Kelly Armstrong, right, and Mac Schneider debated in a forum at the North Dakota Newspaper Association's annual convention in Bismarck on Saturday.

TOM STROMME, TRIBUNE

Last Saturday’s debate between U.S. House candidates Kelly Armstrong and Mac Schneider lacked fireworks. It was more like two old friends having a conversation over coffee.

In fact, Armstrong described his reaction to the debate as “I felt like it was a conservative Republican debating a moderate Republican.” Of course, Armstrong, a Republican state senator from Dickinson, sees himself as the conservative. Schneider, a Democrat and former Senate minority leader, would take exception at being called a Republican. Or would he?

Both candidates on Saturday were trying to woo the moderate to conservative voters in the state. They agreed on the need for a strong farm bill, fewer federal regulations and were supportive of energy development. They didn’t tangle much over the Republican tax bill or the Affordable Care Act, measures they differ on. They are chasing many of the same votes and neither seemed inclined to ruffle any feathers. Schneider’s going to need Republican votes to win the election. This could be an election where voters are asked to choose a candidate less on their positions and more on how they plan to accomplish their goals. Since Armstrong and Schneider may not disagree extensively, it’s important who might be the most effective congressman.

It will help the winner if his party controls the U.S. House. While it’s likely the Republicans will retain power, it’s not guaranteed. So voters need to consider which candidate can best work across party lines to pass legislation important to North Dakota. Also, whether the candidates would be willing at times to break with their party. Whether Armstrong or Schneider is elected, the winner will have the disadvantage of being a freshman representative. It takes time to develop some clout in the House and it isn’t easy to get choice committee assignments during your first term. There will be a learning curve for both men.

Don’t get us wrong, the Tribune Editorial Board isn’t looking for nasty debates. Saturday’s debate was the first in a number of likely encounters between the candidates. More debates should more clearly define their differences. The primary is still a month away and then there’s more than four months until the general election. Armstrong faces opposition in the primary from former Marine Tiffany Abentroth and Paul Schaffner of Minot. Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton also is on the ballot, but he’s not actively campaigning. He dropped out of the race after losing the GOP convention nomination to Armstrong.

It’s possible Saturday’s debate might have been more lively if Abentroth and Schaffner had been invited, though Armstrong’s heavily favored to win the primary.

It’s shaping up to be an interesting campaign season. The Senate race between Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer will garner a lot of attention, especially on the national level. The North Dakota contest could decide control of the U.S. Senate. That doesn’t mean the House race should be any less important to North Dakotans.

Whoever wins the House seat will make key decisions over the next two years that will impact all North Dakotans. That’s why the debate Saturday and future ones are important. The debates don’t need to be noisy and acrimonious. They need to define the candidates and the issues and their differences. That will help state voters decide who can best serve them.

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