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Thune’s 527 Uses War for Fundraising

Former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) has sent out the second appeal this year for his 527 fundraising group, seeking to tap into discontent over comments made by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and other leading Democrats about the war in Iraq.

In the letter, Thune blasts unnamed Democratic leaders for failing to put politics aside when the war broke out three weeks ago.

Even as Thune continues to keep his political contacts sharp for a potential bid against Daschle in 2004, details of a late-March South Dakota poll paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee continued to leak out.

In the survey, conducted by John McLaughlin and Associates, Thune led Daschle 46 percent to 44 percent, which was within the poll’s 4.9 percent margin of error.

Forty percent of the 400 likely voters tested said they would definitely re-elect Daschle, while 30 percent said they would definitely vote to replace him; 23 percent said they would consider supporting someone other than the three-term Senator.

Fifty-six percent had a favorable opinion of Daschle, while 38 percent were unfavorably inclined. Among Republicans, Daschle’s unfavorable rating was 62 percent and in households with military veterans it was 40 percent.

Thune is seen as the only Republican in the Mount Rushmore State with a realistic chance of toppling Daschle.

He was personally recruited by President Bush into the 2002 race against Sen. Tim Johnson (D). He lost by 524 votes, the narrowest margin in any of the 34 Senate races on the ballot last cycle.

Since his defeat Thune has stayed in the political limelight. In addition to serving as chairman of the 527 group — so named for its filing status with the Internal Revenue Service — Thune has also established the Thune Group, a consulting firm with ties to the D.C. law firm Arent Fox. Despite his activity, Thune is not expected to make a decision on whether he will challenge Daschle until the fall.

Interestingly, Thune’s latest direct-mail appeal for South Dakotans for a Responsible Majority never mentions the Minority Leader by name. Ryan Nelson, a spokesman for the 527, said that “we are an issue-advocacy group so we tend to stay away from going after candidates directly.”

But in the letter, Thune writes that “on the eve of the war Democrat leaders criticized President Bush for his policy toward Iraq,” an obvious reference to a statement made by Daschle on March 17, just two days before fighting began, that he was “saddened that this president failed so miserably that we’re now forced to war.”

“The most obvious failure evident in recent weeks in the United States was that of the Democratic Party and its leaders,” Thune continues. “They failed to understand when to put politics aside.” He urges donors to give to the organization, which can accept unlimited contributions, to help his group “shin[e] a bright light on the opposition when they attack our positions and values.”

Nelson said the letters, which are sent primarily to South Dakotans but also to other past Thune supporters nationwide, have received a “very positive” response.

Steve Hildebrand, campaign manager for Daschle, accused Thune of “utilizing loopholes to raise unlimited amounts of money to set up his political operation in South Dakota.”

Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that if Thune makes the race “this 527 … will be seen as nothing but a sham and a way to skirt campaign finance laws.”

Thune raised better than $5 million for his 2002 run against Johnson. In a recent interview with Roll Call, Daschle said he expected to show $2 million on hand in his April quarterly fundraising report and would raise upwards of $10 million for his 2004 race.

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