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Outside money sets tone of the U.S. Senate race in South Dakota
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An image from a piece of campaign literature from the John Thune campaign criticizes Tom Daschle's wife for her lobbying work in Washington. (MPR photo/Cara Hetland)
More money is being spent in South Dakota's race for the U.S. Senate this year than ever before. TV shows and newspapers are filled with political ads. Democratic incumbent Sen. Tom Daschle has not had any outside advertising run on behalf. Until this week, all of his ads came from his campaign. Republican challenger John Thune has gotten help from the national Republican Party -- $1 million worth so far has been spent on ads critical of Tom Daschle. A recent poll shows the Senate race in a statistical dead heat. As the countdown to Election Day continues the ads show the race heating up.

Sioux Falls, S.D. — In a state where television time is relatively cheap, millions of dollars can buy a lot of commercials. One researcher says the average South Dakota viewer sees at least 10 commercials for the Senate race alone on a given night. Tom Daschle has been running ads for about 18 months. Most talk about his accomplishments in Washington.

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Image Republican candidate John Thune

The ads from Republican challenger John Thune's campaign have been varied. One features his daughters saying they're willing to share their dad. Another is critical of Daschle's record in Washington D.C. The ad's copy uses a football metaphor to make its point.

"Tom 'the blocking machine' Daschle. Crushing laws, fighting progress, stonewalling hopes and dreams. It's time to make this year Tom 'the blocking machine' Daschle's final season," the television ad says.

Lately criticism has given way to attack. Recently Daschle charged John Thune's lobbying work for pharmaceutical companies was bad for South Dakota seniors.

A Thune ad responded, saying Daschle and his wife, Linda Hall Daschle, are the ones who profit from her lobbying work.

One of Daschle's television ads fires back. It begins with the standard "I'm Tom Daschle and I approve of this message." Then, an announcer's voice comes on and says, "What does it say about a man's character when he attacks another man's wife?"

John Thune defends his ad criticizing Daschle's wife.

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Image U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle

"He (Daschle) enjoys a lifestyle that he otherwise would not enjoy because of the lobbying money that his wife is paid by that very pharmaceutical industry," says Thune. "And the access that she has to him and his office increases the value that she has as a lobbyist."

Sen. Tom Daschle laughs and he responds.

"Well, we can let the record stand for itself," Daschle says. "The fact is, John's made about a half a million dollars a year lobbying for pharmaceutical companies and others. I don't think that's the issue. The issue ought to be how can we raise the income of the people in South Dakota."

Sen. Daschle says the negative tone of the campaign is coming from outside South Dakota.

"I think it's a very negative campaign, unfortunately," Daschle says. "I had asked John (Thune) if he'd be willing to keep out all of the out-of-state groups, and that wasn't possible and that's where it all started. A lot of negative attacks have come from groups on the outside."

Thune says elections are all about differences.

"The differences couldn't be more clear this time around, and I'm not reluctant to point out those differences," Thune says. "I'm going to talk about the facts, I'm going to speak the truth, I'm going to talk about the record."

Bill Richardson, chairman of the political science department at the University of South Dakota, says Linda Hall Daschle has been criticized before and it shouldn't come as a surprise that it happened in this race. Richardson says it's anybody's guess where the campaigns will hit next, because so much is at stake.

"Both of their careers are on the line," Richardson says. "If Tom Daschle is defeated, where else is he going to go? Perhaps stay in (Washington) D.C. and do some lobbying on his own. If Thune is defeated, well, that would be two in a row -- and what are the prospects for him in South Dakota beyond that. Particularly, given the timelines of other offices opening up in the future."

Richardson says residents of South Dakota are being bombarded with ads and news coverage for the U.S. Senate race. In fact the statewide election is getting so much attention, other issues and candidates on the November ballot have gone unnoticed. It's possible on Election Day, many voters won't know much about the rest of their ballot.

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