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South Dakota U.S. Senate race is all about power
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U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle addresses a meeting of a Sioux Falls Rotary. Daschle says one of the most powerful desks in the world belongs to the people of South Dakota. (Cara Hetland)
Voters in Minnesota are seeing the presidential election close up, this year. Swing states like Minnesota could decide control of the White House. But in South Dakota, the balance of power in the U.S. Senate is at stake. Many political watchers call the South Dakota Senate race the second most important race in the country. For voters the most critical issue is political power. Will South Dakota have more clout re-electing Tom Daschle as the Democratic Leader? Or will John Thune's Republican connections to the White House mean more for the state?

Sioux Falls, S.D. — Think about political rallies. The picture is usually a candidate, surrounded by a parade of important people who support him or her. But that's not happening this year in South Dakota. Instead, Democrat Tom Daschle and Republican John Thune usually stand alone on the stage. They're each trying to distance themself from their party. But at the same time they're clinging to the political clout it provides.

Robert Burns is chairman of the political science department at South Dakota State University. He says Daschle needs to look less liberal in a Republican state. And Thune needs to show he can be independent from the Bush administration.

"It's kind of a tricky tricky message that he's dealing with there. That it's not good for Daschle to be an obstructionist and fight the Bush administration but it would be good for "me" to take positions against the Bush administration," says Burns.

For six years, John Thune served as South Dakota's lone congressman before taking a run at the Senate in 2002. He lost to Democrat incumbent Tim Johnson by 524 votes. In that campaign, John Thune looked to President Bush for a boost . There were four presidential visits in the final days of the campaign.

This time the President is hitting neighboring states and avoiding South Dakota. The only images of the President are in a television ad for Tom Daschle. The picture shows the Republican President and the Senate Democrat hugging after the terrorist attacks. Daschle's message? He'll work with the president when it's good for South Dakota and challenge him when it's not.

Political science professor Robert Burns says Thune is more aggressive in this campaign. In 2002, often the tough talk came from his press secretary.

"I think that's part of his strategy to project the image that he can be his own self he can be personally assertive and speak for himself," says Burns.

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Image John Thune says it's time for a change.

Robert Burns says Thune is taking a risk attacking a popular Senator. But Thune says the differences between himself and Daschle are clear and need to be pointed out. One of Thune's most consistent point is that Tom Daschle isn't the leader he says he is. Thune charges Daschle's notoriety as Majority leader and Minority leader of the U.S. Senate kept him from focusing on important issues. Thune says Daschle didn't get the necessary votes for an energy bill last November. It was a bill that would have helped South Dakota farmers through ethanol production.

"We need meaningful leadership when it matters the most. And it mattered the most last November when we had a chance to get the ethanol renewable fuel standard put into place and we missed that opportunity," insists Thune.

The bill failed by two votes. Thune says Daschle dropped the ball. Instead of using his influence as a leader he says Daschle was off signing books. Daschle wrote a book about his experiences in the 107th congress.

Tom Daschle says his clout has put South Dakota on the national agenda. Daschle likes to say the proof of that, is where he sits in the U.S. Senate. Front and center.

"Right now that desk and that office belong to the people of South Dakota. And I feel very very proud of that fact. ... Now some would have you believe it's time to give all of that up and pick one of those seats in the far corner. But I don't think so. We've been at the front of the line," says Daschle.

Tom Daschle has been in Washington D.C. for 26 years. First in the House and then in the Senate. Daschle is the leader of the Democratic Party. If the election goes the way he hopes he could become Senate Majority Leader.

But on this recent day, the nation's most powerful Democrat is at a Rotary luncheon in Sioux Falls. It's a room filled mostly with Republican business-people. He's courting the Republican vote he's counted on in every other election.

One Sioux Falls businessman says he's almost persuaded by Daschle's argument. But he'll likely vote for John Thune. It's something he won't admit to publicly. If Daschle wins he needs him.

"There's a part of me that's torn and tugged towards that power he has in the senate. But I guess I'd have to say for me any my state values and my business values he doesn't speak for me," he says.

For Sioux Falls real estate agent Chuck Point, the reason to support Tom Daschle is clear.

I think he is still quite an influential figure. Still an opinion leader within South Dakota. I don't suggest his political base is anywhere near what it was prior to the conviction of the manslaughter charge but it is still significant.
- SDSU Political Scientis Robert Burns says of Bill Janklow

"It would be hard to give up all he's worked for and all that we all believe in to go back to the end of the line. Although I'm not against a fresh face once in a while but when we've got a good one in the front of the line, I think we ought to keep him," says Point.

On paper Republican John Thune has several things in his favor. Many national analysts say Thune should be a shoe-in because South Dakota is a Republican state. Despite that, Daschle has won re-election because so many people split their vote. They vote Republicans in as president, some say, to watch the purse strings. But they vote Democrats into congress to make sure some of the spending comes South Dakota's way.

South Dakota's also a small state where lots of voters say they know these candidates. Daschle makes an annual driving tour to all 66 counties in the state. Other people say they still remember John Thune's high school jump shot. People here really do know each other.

There are many waiting for some kind of an "October Surprise." Something that could widen the gap. Polls show Daschle leading Thune but within the margin of error.

There's an investigation into the Republican party's handling of absentee ballot requests. One of South Dakota's most familiar politicians has weighed in. Former Governor and Republican Congressman Bill Janklow called the Associated Press recently. Janklow accused the National Republican "Get out the Vote" effort with cheating. Janklow said the same thing happened in his 2002 race for Congress. Janklow has since resigned and dropped out of public view. He was convicted of manslaughter earlier this year for a car accident that killed a Minnesota man.

Political Scientist Robert Burns says if Janklow got involved in the Senate race he would support Tom Daschle. Even though they disagree on the issues, Burns says the two are good friends.

"I think it could be meaningful. I think he is still quite an influential figure. Still an opinion leader within South Dakota. I don't suggest his political base is anywhere near what it was prior to the conviction of the manslaughter charge but it is still significant," says Burns.

Burns says if Janklow is working on Senator Tom Daschle's behalf this year, the support will be invisible.

The South Dakota U.S. Senate race will be one for the record books. More people are registered to vote than ever before. This election, like so many others, will come down to voter turnout and the weather on November 2nd.

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