- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 24, 2002

RAPID CITY, S.D. Republican Rep. John Thune says even the support of President Bush in his Senate race doesn't neutralize what he calls the heavy-handed tactics of fellow South Dakotan Tom Daschle, the Democratic Senate majority leader fighting to stay in power.
"It's very personal for him," Mr. Thune said of Mr. Daschle. "He has done everything within his power in Washington to shut down any money that I'm able to raise."
Mr. Thune's opponent, freshman Sen. Tim Johnson, is viewed as the Democrats' most vulnerable incumbent and the Republicans' best opportunity to recapture the Senate. Mr. Daschle and the Democrats are clinging to a one-seat majority, and the White House has been working hard for Mr. Thune to win the race in a state where Mr. Bush won 60 percent of the vote two years ago.
Polls show the race is a virtual dead heat.
Mr. Johnson, 55, says the White House political machine run by senior presidential adviser Karl Rove has been doing all it can to defeat him. But Mr. Thune said Mr. Daschle's hardball fund-raising efforts for Mr. Johnson have more effect than the president's involvement.
The president's support counteracts Mr. Daschle "to some degree," Mr. Thune said in an interview.
"But you know, in Washington, that [White House support] doesn't matter much," Mr. Thune said. "Johnson's outraised us four-to-one in PACs. I think people in Washington are more concerned about congressional action" when deciding on campaign donations.
Mr. Thune said Mr. Daschle has been "intimidating, threatening" lobbyists and political action committees that they risk losing appropriations projects if they contribute to the Republican's campaign. He refused to cite specific examples.
"I'm not going to get people in trouble," Mr. Thune said. "But I have people come up to me all the time to tell me [about Mr. Daschles tactics]. Maybe that's the way it works. I've kind of concluded that's the landscape we're in. He's tried to steer money to Johnson and steer it away from me. He's in a position that he can do that."
Mr. Johnson has a seat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Federal Election Commission data through Aug. 14 shows that Mr. Johnson has raised $2.1 million in PAC contributions, while Mr. Thune has raised $658,646, though the Democrat essentially had a four-year head start.
A spokesman for Mr. Daschle said Mr. Thune's accusations are "totally false, unsubstantiated and malicious."
"It's disappointing that someone would make a claim like that for political reasons," said Daschle spokesman Jay Carson.
Asked whether Mr. Daschle was threatening or intimidating lobbyists on his behalf, Mr. Johnson replied, "I'm not aware of that."
"If anything, to the contrary, I'm aware of the White House political operatives intimidating groups from giving money to me, saying 'You're going to lose your access to the White House,'" Mr. Johnson said.
He said White House political director Ken Mehlman tried this year to dissuade the state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police from endorsing Mr. Johnson. Mr. Mehlman reportedly made four phone calls to the chapter president; however, no one has accused him of threatening to cut off access to the White House.
"If anything, the Rove political machine of theirs has been very hands-on, relative to fund raising and relative to trying to intimidate supporters," Mr. Johnson said. "I used to think Bill Clinton's was a political White House. But it pales compared to this."
Also, in a story first reported by The Washington Times, Mr. Daschle this summer brokered a deal with environmental groups to allow logging in part of the Black Hills National Forest and defuse a tense political situation over the threat of forest fires. The agreement, which waives certain environmental regulations, affects only South Dakota and was viewed by Republicans as an effort to help Mr. Johnson in the western part of the state.
Mr. Thune has logged more than 4,000 miles this month on a statewide bus tour, campaigning with wife Kimberley and their two teenage daughters in more than 50 cities and towns. He told supporters in predominantly Republican Rapid City last week that the tight race will come down to turnout.
"We have to get every vote out," Mr. Thune said, sporting a button that proclaimed "Of course I own a gun don't you?"
Democrats "are playing for keeps," he told the audience. "Because for them, this is about their hold on political power, and they are going to fight like heck to keep us from taking it away."
Mr. Thune, 41, in his third House term, said the race will determine whether Mr. Bush can achieve much of his domestic agenda.
"It is going to set the direction and the tone of leadership in America for the next decade and beyond," Mr. Thune said. "This president needs a team he can work with in the United States Senate."
Mr. Johnson said Mr. Thune's rapport with the president hasn't helped him deliver for South Dakota on issues such as the drought. The Democrats support a bipartisan plan for $5 billion in emergency drought aid, but the president has resisted, saying any help should come from the $180 billion farm bill approved this year.
"You would think if ever John would have influence with the White House, this would be the year," Mr. Johnson said. "John boasts that he has speed-dial to the White House, but if that's the case, he's been put on hold a lot."
Mr. Thune has proposed transferring savings from the crop price-support program in the farm bill, but Mr. Johnson and Mr. Daschle say those savings are on paper and would not be available until sometime next year.
Thune supporters are sympathetic with the tight spot the drought has created for him, fearful that the Democrats' call for no-strings government aid is popular with ranchers and farmers, many of whom are Republican.
"They think we're going to get all those freebies that's how [Democrats] get elected," said Jean Trent of Spearfish. "We [Republicans] are going to have a problem."
Said Jim Bell, a Republican from Rapid City, "We have a lot of people who call themselves Republicans. But when Daschle comes here, he brings extra money for this project or that project. That really bothers me."
A recent poll showed that Mr. Johnson's position improved by 12 points when voters were told that re-electing him would keep Mr. Daschle as majority leader. And Mr. Johnson promotes his relationship with Mr. Daschle in the Senate majority as a reason for South Dakotans to re-elect him.
"The case can be made right now that South Dakota's got one of the most powerful Senate delegations in the nation," Mr. Johnson said. "You've got the majority leader and a seat on the appropriations committee. That's a very strong one-two punch."
He said the election will come down to which candidate can deliver more for the state.
"If it's just two nice guys running against each other, the Republican wins," Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Thune is making the larger case for a Republican-led Senate.
"South Dakota is in the cross hairs," he said. "We have an opportunity to send a message to the rest of this country and to the entire world that we want to be a part of solving problems, not pointing fingers and playing the blame game. And not continuing to put politics and power ahead of what's right for the American people. We are poised to do that this year."

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