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South Dakota Elections to Determine Ruling Party in US Senate - 2002-05-04


Tom Daschle isn't up for re-election this year, but he might as well be. South Dakota's junior Senator, Democrat Tim Johnson, is in a tight re-election race with popular Republican Congressman John Thune, who was personally recruited by President Bush.

Senator Johnson and Congressman Thune are seen nationally as surrogates for Senator Daschle and President Bush, but this isn't just a test of strength.

Because the Democrats hold a majority in the Senate by just one vote, a victory by Congressman Thune could put the GOP back in control of the Senate and put his fellow South Dakotan back in the minority leader's office.

So it surprised no one when Congressman Thune got to introduce the president as a personal friend to a crowd of 7,000 in Sioux Falls.

"He's our leader and he's our president. He's our commander-in-chief, and you know what else: he's just a heck of a nice guy, too," Mr. Thune said.

The president gave more of a policy talk than a stump speech; but he made it clear Congressman Thune is his man. "He's not afraid to stand up for what he believes, and it's refreshing to hear his voice amongst the shrill partisans in Washington, D.C.," Mr. Bush said.

While President Bush criticized the politics on Capitol Hill, many South Dakotans are unhappy with how partisan politics are coming home to them this year.

TV time for political ads comes dirt cheap in the nation's 46th most populous state, so outside money has been pouring in. Senator Daschle is usually the target. Waves of ads by outside groups accuse him of blocking the White House agenda. During the presidential visit some South Dakota Democrats ran ads of their own.

One TV ad broadcasts with the following message: "...Back here Mr. President, your out-of-state allies are attacking Tom Daschle. You said you would change the tone in politics. Mr. President, tell the out-of-state special interests to stop the attacks."

A White House spokesman said the president has nothing to do with the anti-Daschle ads. Indeed during a visit to a new ethanol plant, Mr. Bush had only warm words for the man who some say might challenge him in 2004. The president said he was honored the Senator flew home to attend the event.

Here, in a steel frame building where corn-growers unload their crop for processing into a fuel additive, many farmers say they're loyal to both the president and Senator Daschle. Consequently, they're having a hard time deciding between John Thune and incumbent Tim Johnson in the Senate race.

Doug van Duyn is a farmer and rancher, who has worked with both Congressman Thune and Senator Johnson on ethanol and other issues. Mr. Van Duyn said both have been good for the state. He wishes he didn't have to decide.

"I am a conservative South Dakota farmer, and I guess it's in my blood to vote the conservative side of the ticket. And it's hard to do when there's so much at stake. We'd lose Tom Daschle's Senate majority position," Mr. Van Duyn said.

South Dakotan voters will have to come to terms with the fact that their small state could determine the power arrangements in Washington for some time to come. But they've still got six months to decide. And with so much at stake, they're counting on more out-of-state ads and more presidential visits.

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