- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Republican John Thune pulled ahead of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in the South Dakota race for the U.S. Senate late last night and appeared headed for the most significant upset in this year’s congressional elections.

“The math is starting to look better and better for John Thune,” said his campaign manager, Dick Wadhams. “Our war room is more jovial than theirs.”

Neither side was ready to claim victory in what has been a bruising battle that was expected by many to go into the wee hours of this morning.

Late last night, with more than 85 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. Thune pulled ahead of Mr. Daschle, 51 percent to 49 percent, with a lead of more than 6,000 votes.

Still to be counted were some counties with American Indian reservations, which trend heavily toward Mr. Daschle, and other areas in the pro-Republican western part of the state.

Many observers had expected the race to come down to a few hundred votes in the state of roughly 760,000.

“It’s very close, but I won two years ago at nine in the morning by 524 votes,” said Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, who beat Mr. Thune in that 2002 race. “It’s still a possible win for Tom Daschle, but it might be a while before we know.”

As evidence of just how hard-fought the race has been, the two candidates already were wrangling in court as voters flooded the polls to finally decide the outcome yesterday.

Mr. Daschle’s camp dropped a bombshell on Monday night, when it accused Republican operatives of trying to intimidate American Indian voters in some parts of the state.

The federal judge who decided the matter — a longtime associate of Mr. Daschle’s — ruled early yesterday that Republican poll watchers in Charles Mix County could not follow American Indian voters from polling places or record the license plates of the vehicles that drove them there or home.

Mr. Thune’s camp will be in court today to appeal the decision. Mr. Wadhams said no voter intimidation occurred, and the legal challenge was Mr. Daschle’s way of laying the groundwork to challenge the election that he knows he will lose.

“I suspect Daschle is going to lose today, and he’s setting the state for an election challenge [Wednesday] morning,” Mr. Wadhams said.

He also noted that the judge, Lawrence Piersol, was Mr. Daschle’s lawyer when he first ran for Congress in the 1970s and later was chosen by Mr. Daschle for the federal bench.

Mr. Daschle called the desperation accusation “laughable” and said the Thune camp could have asked the judge to recuse himself if they felt so strongly, but did not.

“We’re very pleased the court agreed,” Mr. Daschle said as he walked into Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls yesterday to shake hands and urge students to vote. He said there weren’t more reports of voter intimidation, so the court ruling had its desired effect.

“The sun is shining, and we’re feeling very excited,” Mr. Daschle said of the race.

Mr. Thune said his Democratic opponent’s 11th-hour legal challenge “suggests an act of desperation” and was “a last-minute ploy” to generate unfavorable headlines for Republicans on Election Day. But he said it won’t work.

“The people of South Dakota have a very clear choice,” an optimistic Mr. Thune said after casting his vote at the Memorial Middle School in Sioux Falls yesterday morning. “I believe they’re going to vote in our favor.”

Mr. Wadhams also said a Democratic lawyer challenged a handful of absentee ballots in the Rapid City area yesterday, but the election board rejected their claim. Daschle spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said there were discrepancies with voter signatures.

Besides trading barbs, both candidates spent some time on the phone yesterday talking with the few undecided voters. They also stopped in communities to shake hands and urge supporters to vote.

Busy polling places indicated that yesterday’s turnout was high, as expected.

“I think we needed a change,” Joyce Molstad, a retired resident of Sioux Falls said as she left the Trinity Baptist Church after voting for Mr. Thune. “There were things with Daschle I didn’t feel good about.”

Others said the current senator is just fine.

“Tom has done a lot of good for the state,” Duane Boice said after casting his vote for the senator at Jane Addams Elementary School in Sioux Falls.

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