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Battle of the Badlands

While Daschle Mobilizes, Thune Ponders

Reinforcing his claim that he will run for re-election in 2004, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) has brought on high-powered operative Steve Hildebrand to manage his race.

Hildebrand’s decision removes him from the talent pool of strategists being heavily fished by the five Democratic presidential contenders: Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.), Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Hildebrand, who currently resides in Sioux Falls, was one of the most highly sought-after unaffiliated Democratic staffers, having managed the successful Iowa caucus campaign of then-Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign. Daschle’s decision to hire Hildebrand should dispel rumors that he was not serious about seeking re-election.

Amid Daschle’s preparations, former Rep. John Thune (S.D.), the 2002 GOP Senate nominee, is more seriously contemplating a challenge to the South Dakota Democrat, and the Republican National Committee has conducted a poll testing Thune’s viability against the three-term Senator.

In the November survey, Daschle led Thune 46 percent to 45 percent, well within the poll’s 4.3 percent margin of error.

Conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for the RNC from Nov. 20-21, Thune carried slightly stronger favorable ratings than Daschle, among the 500 likely voters tested.

Sixty-five percent of those polled were favorably inclined to Thune, while 28 percent had an unfavorable impression. Daschle’s marks were also high, with a 62 percent favorable and a 35 percent unfavorable score.

“Everyone recognizes that it would be a tough, tight race,” said a South Dakota Republican observer, “but these numbers confirm that John Thune remains one of the strongest and most popular statewide candidates in South Dakota.”

Hildebrand had a different take on the poll results.

“This Republican poll does not truly measure the South Dakota electorate and where it stands now,” he said. “Senator Daschle is as popular as ever.”

Republicans argue that Thune’s strong numbers in the poll reflect the soundness of his decision not to contest his 524-vote defeat at the hands of Sen. Tim Johnson (D) last November despite allegations of voter fraud in the American Indian community.

Thune announced Nov. 13 that “the people of South Dakota have been subjected to one of the longest and most expensive campaigns in South Dakota history. I choose not to subject them to more.”

“The fact that he bowed out gracefully increased his popularity,” said a GOP strategist.

Two weeks ago, not even Daschle’s closest advisers thought they would be preparing for a re-election race.

Daschle was widely expected to enter the presidential primaries but backed out and announced instead that he would run for a fourth term.

At the time, a Daschle confidante told Roll Call that the “biggest surprise” of the day was that he was planning to run again for the Senate, not that he wasn’t pursuing the presidency.

In an instant, the political calculus in the state changed drastically.

Far and away the most popular South Dakota Democratic politician, Daschle had a meteoric rise in state politics.

He won an open House seat in 1978 at the age of 30 and, after serving eight years, knocked off Sen. Jim Abdnor (R) 52 percent to 48 percent in 1986.

Daschle quickly consolidated his support base, winning in 1992 with 65 percent and in 1998 with 62 percent.

He is also an extremely strong fundraiser. He will show nearly $1.4 million in his campaign war chest in his year-end report and is already activating his potent fundraising apparatus, according to sources close to him.

If Daschle had vacated his seat, Thune would have been seen as the heir apparent, not only for the Republican nomination but also to win the general election because the Democratic bench is thin.

Although former Gov. and now-Rep. Bill Janklow (R), who won a race for Thune’s House seat in 2002, has also expressed an interest in the Senate race, it is unlikely he will challenge Daschle, because they are close friends.

President Bush was an essential part of Thune’s 2001 decision to abandon a sure-thing gubernatorial race for the Senate election. Bush and Thune met several times as the three-term Congressman was weighing his options, and Bush made a number of high-profile visits to South Dakota at the end of campaign.

Bush is likely to again play a large role in Thune’s calculations, as he will lead the ticket nationwide and could provide a significant boost to GOP candidates in strongly Republican states like South Dakota.

In 2000, Bush carried the state with 60 percent of the vote and is likely to near that figure again in 2004.

The takeover of the Senate by Republicans in the 2002 election may also weaken the argument — forwarded by Democrats during the Johnson-Thune race — that a vote for Thune was a vote against Daschle’s key position as Majority Leader.

“People felt they were sold a bill of goods,” said a Republican strategist. “The potency of the argument is now diminished by the fact that [Daschle] lost that powerful position.”

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