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Close Senate race in national spotlight
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U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-SD, center, debates with his challenger, Republican John Thune, left, on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday. The race is believed to be one of the tightest races in the upcoming general election. Moderator Tim Russert is on the right. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The race for the U.S. Senate in South Dakota is one of the most closely watched in the country. Former Republican Congressman John Thune is challenging Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. The race is symbolic for both Republicans and Democrats. President Bush would like the Republican candidate to win as a vote for his agenda. Democrats want their leader to win as a vote against the president. Thune and Daschle debated before a national audience on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Vermillion, S.D. — Most of the national symbolism was lost on a dozen 20-something college students. Sitting quietly before the big screen in the student commons at the University of South Dakota, each came in with their mind made up as to which candidate will get their vote. Democrat Jonathan Walls and Republican Leslie Simdorn summed up the race and the candidates.

"I think that it all comes down to who's going to go to bat for South Dakota," said Walls. "You have Tom Daschle who is standing firm, and John Thune who is giving glib answers, and not being very specific on the plans of action he's going to take -- and simply serving as a rubber stamp for our president."

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Image Watching the debate

"I just want to respond to that," said Simdorn. "When Daschle did stand up against his party it was before he was the leader of his party. I don't think the same thing would be true anymore. I don't think he would willingly stand up against the Democratic Party as the leader of the Democratic Party for the sake of South Dakota."

Most of the 50-minute debate focused on the war in Iraq. On the eve of the war, Daschle criticized President Bush for failing miserably at diplomacy. Daschle said he regrets the timing of the statement and says the war should be handled differently.

"This administration has made a lot of mistakes. They didn't have a plan, we know that now," Daschle said. "We aren't giving our troops the body armor they need. We're not listening to military commanders. We're not providing the help internationally that we should be providing. Those are the things I was talking about then."

John Thune said the United States should stay the course in creating a democratic government, ratifying a constitution and establishing an Iraqi army to defend itself.

Moderator Tim Russert questioned John Thune about two fundraising letters sent on his behalf. In one, Thune called Daschle an embarrassment. A second letter written by the chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party accused Daschle of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Thune responded by saying Daschle's actions before the war "emboldened the enemy."

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Image Interested students

"I think they do," said Thune. "I think when you have political leaders in your country, Tim, in a time of war -- when you've got young men and women on the ground, South Dakota men and women, Guard men and women, active duty personnel, who are putting their lives at risk for the United States of America -- and you've got a leader from your state who is getting up and attacking in a way that completely undermined the morale of our troops -- that's wrong."

"That's a very serious charge, your words, embolden the enemy," said Russert.

Daschle responded looking very much the victim.

"John's attacks on me, where I come from, would earn a trip to the woodshed. He knows that's wrong. His effort to demonize me won't work in South Dakota," said Daschle.

The students watching the exchange laughed and rolled their eyes. Many of the students believe the war has little to do with the race in South Dakota. For them, their vote is for social and moral issues.

University of South Dakota Political Science Professor Bill Richardson says the war overshadows everything in this election because it's key in the presidential race. Richardson says in South Dakota, most voters already have their minds made up. He says polls are not reliable right now because who turns out to vote will decide the election.

"There are very few undecided voters right now. The only question is how many of the partisan are going to go to the polls -- 75 percent, 80 percent? And how many of the relatively few undecideds, 2,000, 3,000, are also going to end up at the polls. Those are the people who are going to decide the election," says Richardson.

Daschle and Thune debate three more times before statewide audiences in October. Richardson says the debates help clarify issues, but the personal contact each candidate makes with voters will ultimately make the difference on Nov. 2.

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