SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Sen. Tom Daschle is fighting for his political career in a no-holds-barred Senate race against challenger John Thune, the Republicans’ hope for removing what they say is the key obstacle to President Bush’s agenda.
The South Dakota Senate race arguably will be one of the most watched congressional contests tomorrow. Republicans are striving not only to pick up another seat in the Senate, but also to unseat the Democratic leader, who, they say, has blocked many of their proposals and judicial nominees.
“It’s a chance for the people of South Dakota to send a message to the rest of the country,” an upbeat former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani told a cheering crowd at a rally for Mr. Thune here Friday night. “The kind of enthusiasm, strength… you have in this room is the kind of thing that wins elections.”
Polls show either candidate with a lead of a few points, meaning the race is statistically tied. A recent Zogby poll has Mr. Thune up by three percentage points, 49 percent to 46 percent. A Mason-Dixon poll found Mr. Daschle up by two, 49 percent to 47 percent.
But Democrats say the Republicans’ plan simply won’t work.
“The Republicans haven’t had anybody else to demonize other than Tom Daschle,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It didn’t work in 2002… and it’s not going to work now. Republicans are going to be sorely embarrassed when the voters of South Dakota reject their tactics.”
Mr. Thune ran in 2002 against South Dakota’s other Democratic senator, Tim Johnson, and lost by 524 votes. Both sides say the race this year could be similarly close in the largely agrarian state of 760,000 people.
“I believe we’ve got to keep doing everything we’re doing,” Mr. Daschle said Friday as he left the American Legion in Sisseton, where he shook hands and spoke to a packed house of supporters.
Regardless of the outcome, the race has been expensive and mean. Mr. Daschle, who has been in Congress since 1978 and in the Senate since 1986, has raised more than $18.5 million and Mr. Thune, a former three-term congressman, has raised about $14 million.
South Dakotans have had to endure a seemingly endless barrage of television and radio ads from both camps, as well as from outside groups such as the National Rifle Association, and both political parties. Recently, each side accused the other of profiting from lobbyists — Mr. Thune ran an ad saying Mr. Daschle lives in a million-dollar home because of his lobbyist wife; Democrats ran an ad saying Mr. Thune “sold out” by becoming a lobbyist for the past few years.
In another ad, Mr. Thune plays clips of Mr. Daschle praising trial lawyers, a woman’s right to choose and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat who isn’t exactly popular in South Dakota.
During the campaign, Mr. Daschle stresses that as Senate minority leader, he has the power to make South Dakota’s concerns heard and get results. One of his ads asks, “Does it really make sense to elect a new senator and go all the way back to the end of the line?”
Mr. Thune, on the other hand, has said Mr. Daschle is a Washington liberal who obstructs most of the Bush agenda on issues ranging from health care and pro-life measures to judges and then comes back to the state and pretends to be Republican-like on many issues.
Feelings are strong on both sides among the people of South Dakota.
“We feel strongly that [Mr. Thune] holds values similar to ours,” said Martha Frohwein, who attended the Friday rally with her husband, Jeff, and two children. Mrs. Frohwein said Mr. Thune’s strong pro-life stance and support for protecting traditional marriage contrasts with Mr. Daschle, who has voted pro-choice repeatedly and voted against the constitutional amendment to protect marriage.
But Orrie Swayze, farmer from Wilmot, said he strongly supports Mr. Daschle because the senator cares more about the “bread-and-butter” issues such as health care and jobs, while the Republicans have tried to make the Senate race only about “God, guns and gays.”
“We believe he’s going to be our next senator,” said Deb Solholt, a nurse from Sioux Falls, who was cheering and shaking a red, white and blue pompom as she waited for Mr. Thune to speak at the Friday rally.
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