Sunday, May 23, 2004

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — By the yardstick of the usually staid and clubby Senate, yesterday’s visit by Majority Leader Bill Frist to South Dakota to campaign against his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, was the Washington equivalent of a poke in the eye.

“Control of the United States Senate rests upon one vote,” Mr. Frist said at a Lincoln Day Dinner for the Minnehaha County Republican Party. “And that’s the reason why I am here in South Dakota with you today, is because that one vote can determine whether you go with the vision of President George W. Bush.”

Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican, spent yesterday campaigning in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, both ends of South Dakota, with Republican John R. Thune, the state’s former congressman who is seeking to unseat Mr. Daschle in November.

Without ever mentioning Mr. Daschle by name at the dinner, Mr. Frist made it clear he believes Mr. Thune’s victory can help him and fellow Republicans break the gridlock that has characterized the Senate in the past few years as Democrats have conducted filibuster after filibuster, protesting the way Republicans have run the chamber.

Mr. Frist pointed to several times when one vote has made a difference in the Senate, including the 2003 tax-cut bill and the Medicare prescription-drug bill, with both barely passing.

Mr. Thune told the gathering he will be that one key vote.

“We need someone who will listen to the people of South Dakota and not to the voices of the liberal Democratic caucus in Washington,” Mr. Thune told the gathering of 600 Republicans.

But yesterday’s visit said much more about how Democrats and Republicans are — or, more aptly, aren’t — getting along in Congress than it does about Mr. Thune’s chances at victory.

It’s the first time in memory that the leader of one party in the Senate, which used to be known for its cross-party comity, has hit so directly at the other party’s leader.

“It may be rare, but these are rare times,” Mr. Frist said at a press conference after a morning visit to Ellsworth Air Force Base. “It is rare to have the leader of a party … not be very strongly supported by the people in their home state.”

Ron Van Beek, president of American Public Opinion Survey and Market Research, based in South Dakota, said Mr. Frist’s visit is a bigger deal in Washington than in South Dakota.

“It is, really. Even [Mr.] Bush himself doesn’t pull that many voters towards Thune because politics is local in South Dakota,” he said.

He said the election’s backdrop will be set after the June 1 special election to fill South Dakota’s sole congressional seat. Democrat Stephanie Herseth is leading the race against Republican Larry Diedrich and, if she wins, South Dakota will have an entirely Democratic congressional delegation.

“If she wins, then many of those people who would probably vote for Daschle — Republicans — would probably vote for Thune,” Mr. Van Beek said.

But Dan Pfeiffer, deputy campaign manager for Mr. Daschle, said that’s not how South Dakota votes.

“South Dakota shows over history that people vote on the person, not the party. Time and again, you see that,” he said.

He also said Mr. Daschle’s position as Democratic leader means a lot to the state, and voters know that.

As an example, he pointed to Ellsworth Air Force Base. With Mr. Bush pushing for a base-closing commission to begin work next year, Mr. Daschle, as minority leader, would have one appointee to the nine-member commission. If Democrats win control of the Senate, he, as majority leader, would have two appointees — either way, a strong insurance policy against closing Ellsworth.

Mr. Frist campaigned with Mr. Thune at Ellsworth yesterday, both pledging to try to save the base, but Mr. Pfeiffer said that was a mistake: “All they did was pick what is perhaps the best, most tangible example of what South Dakota would lose” if Mr. Thune wins.

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