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Attack ad with ailing Syrian children stirs up N.D. senate race

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A screenshot from a Senate Leadership Fund advertisement attacking Heidi Heitkamp.2 / 2

GRAND FORKS—North Dakota's Senate candidates are at odds over a new advertisement hitting Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. The ad, which criticizes a stance she took on Syria in 2013, features the images of ailing Syrian children, apparently in the aftermath of a chemical attack.

"Using poisoned, dead Syrian children in a political attack ad is disgusting, shameful and downright wrong," Heitkamp wrote on Twitter, calling on her opponent to reject the ad. "North Dakotans expect better. (Rep. Kevin) Cramer (R-N.D.) should condemn this ad and ask that it be taken down."

Cramer's campaign has distanced itself from some of the advertisement's content, but not its criticism of Heitkamp's foreign policy judgment.

The conservative group behind the ad highlights comments Heitkamp made in a September 2013 interview with MSNBC. At the time, President Barack Obama's administration was weighing a military strike against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad following an apparent chemical weapons attack his regime made against civilians. Instead, Russian officials suggested a series of inspections to disarm the Syrian government's chemical weapons stockpile.

The result left Americans divided on whether the U.S. should proceed with military or diplomatic action.

In the MSNBC interview, made with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Heitkamp expressed interest in the Russian proposal.

"We're trusting the Russians to come to the table to force their ally. ... We're trusting Russia's intent, at this point, to actually deliver the right set of circumstances," Heitkamp said. "I've said all along that we're waiting. Words are not enough. We have to see action."

The international community attempted to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons stockpile in the following months. But there has been continued use of chemical agents in Syria, multiple instances of which have been attributed to the Assad regime. The most recent attack appears to have killed 43 people in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus this week.

The new advertisement, backed by the Senate Leadership Fund, quotes a portion of Heitkamp's remarks that "We're trusting the Russians" on Syrian weapons. It shows images of ailing or deceased Syrian children and closes with an image of the words "Heidi Heitkamp. Not just wrong, but dead wrong."

The Senate Leadership Fund, the pro-GOP group that funded the ad, responded to Heitkamp's remarks.

"What is disgusting is that Heidi Heitkamp is suddenly trying to run away from her record of 'trusting the Russians to come to the table' to stop the Syrians from using chemical weapons. She said it. Russians failed. There was another attack. Children died. It is horrible," SLF spokesman Chris Pack said in a prepared release. "And that is something Sen. Heitkamp has to live with."

A spokesman for Cramer's campaign said in an emailed statement that they "find the ad's approach inappropriate, distasteful and not how we would choose to campaign," but still support the advertisement's underlying argument.

"From supporting Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for president to her decisions on Syria, Iran and illegal immigration, Sen. Heitkamp has consistently shown poor judgment in matters of international and national importance," the statement read.

The Heitkamp campaign promptly fired back.

"Running from his own do-nothing record to prevent bloodshed in Syria, Congressman Cramer just showed North Dakota his true colors: Condoning images of tortured and dying Syrian children to lie and attack Heidi on her hard work to find diplomatic solutions," campaign spokeswoman Julia Krieger said in an emailed statement. "That's not just dirty campaigning from Mitch McConnell's big-money super PAC, it's downright disgraceful—and Congressman Cramer ought to call for the ad to be taken down."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

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