Wednesday, May 26, 2004

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — If Democrats hope to win control of the House in November, it will be because candidates like Stephanie Herseth have a chance to win in states like South Dakota.

The 33-year-old granddaughter of a former state governor is running against Republican Larry Diedrich in Tuesday’s special election, which will fill the term of Bill Janklow, a Republican who resigned the state’s lone House seat after being convicted of second-degree manslaughter for killing a motorcyclist in an accident.

But the chance for Miss Herseth, who never has trailed in the polls, to win in a state that President Bush carried by 22 percent in the 2000 election is being studied far beyond the boundaries of South Dakota. To retake the House, where they currently trail by 227-206, Democrats will have to win seats in places where Mr. Bush is expected to run strong, such as Texas.

She would be the second Democrat to win a special election this year for a Republican House seat in heavily Republican territory. In February, Democrat Ben Chandler won the special election to fill Kentucky’s 6th District, which was vacated by Republican Ernie Fletcher after he won the state’s governorship in November.

Miss Herseth knows Democrats are looking to her for a boost, although she cautioned against reading too much into the result.

“For the Democrats, historically, given what they did in Kentucky, what we might be able to do here, I think it’s more just kind of an energizing event for the party as opposed to something that’s a prelude to the election outcome in November,” she said this weekend after a rally with the state’s two Democratic senators, Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson.

The race is being followed closely on Capitol Hill, where some Republican aides have said a loss would be a “wake-up call.” Before Mr. Chandler’s election, the last time a Democrat had won a special election in a seat previously held by a Republican was in 1991.

“It says something about strength in recruiting, it says something about which party is executing better on the ground, and it’s worth noting — just like Kentucky — this is a district that’s very much Republican turf,” said Greg Speed, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Mr. Chandler’s Kentucky district went for Mr. Bush by 14 percentage points in 2000, and South Dakota backed him by 22 points.

Miss Herseth, who earned her bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees at Georgetown University, is making her second run for the seat. Janklow, a 16-year governor with universal name recognition, won 53 percent of the vote in defeating her in 2002, when Republican John Thune’s retirement left the seat open.

This time, things could not be more different. Miss Herseth is the one with the high name recognition, and she has worked in the state for the past 18 months, defusing the argument leveled against her last time that she had voted in Maryland in 2000 and had returned as an opportunist eager to run for office.

She would be South Dakota’s first female member of Congress and has the potential to rewrite the state’s political rules.

“I see her winning, number one. Number two, she’s a bright new face. That violates a lot of the political knowledge in South Dakota. Certainly, her opponent has got more experience,” said Ron Van Beek of South Dakota-based American Public Opinion.

She also has the potential to be in office a long time.

“When we elect somebody to the House of Representatives they have a tendency to stay there,” Mr. Daschle said.

Still, Mr. Diedrich has closed a wide gap in the polls since gaining the party nomination. According to the latest Mason-Dixon poll, taken for a newspaper and a TV station in South Dakota, Mr. Diedrich trails by 3 percent among definite voters and 9 percent among likely voters — way down from the nearly 30 percent deficit he faced after winning the Republican primary.

“We are, today, right where we hoped to be — in the thick of things, a short four months later,” he said at a Lincoln Day dinner for the Minnehaha County Republican Party.

In the campaign, Mr. Diedrich, a 46-year-old member of the state House of Representatives, has told voters he better matches South Dakota’s conservative bent.

“It makes so much sense to have someone representing this state that represents those values,” he said, referring to her support for abortion rights and her backing from EMILY’s List, which funds the candidacies of pro-choice Democratic women.

Miss Herseth, meanwhile, has been running in the same mold as the two Democratic senators.

“In all the years that Tim and Tom have served in Washington, they finally deserve a counterpart in the U.S. House who’s going to work with them to get things done,” she told several hundred supporters at the rally this weekend.

She has campaigned heavily on supporting changes to the Republican-backed Medicare prescription-drug bill that passed Congress last year.

No matter who wins next week, both candidates said they expect a rematch in November, when the term expires.

Even though Mr. Diedrich is running as a staunch Bush supporter, neither party thinks the election is a referendum on Mr. Bush, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry or any other national political leader.

“In a state like South Dakota, that’s hard to say, because South Dakotans get to know their candidates so well, and they’re such independent thinkers, that anyone that comes in from either party — it’s nice to meet them, but it’s not necessarily going to influence their decision,” Miss Herseth said.

“I think that with the number of ticket splitters we have it’d be hard to read the results of our election and the national significance, because so much can change in the last 10 days of an election, let alone five or six months before the next one,” she said.

As for issues, Republicans said not to read much into those, either.

“She’s run this race similar to the way Chandler did, basically as a Republican,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

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