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Daschle Doesn’t Wait for Thune

GOP Has Few Options in S.D.

Without a high-profile opponent, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) spent more than $1 million over the summer in one of the earliest starting and most aggressive re-election campaigns in the country.

With potential opponent former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) still mulling the race, Daschle raised about $1.3 million in the third quarter and ended the period with just more than $3 million in the bank, according to the Senator’s campaign. More stunning was the $1.15 million spent in the quarter, funding an early television campaign launched in July as well as a pricey direct-mail operation and sophisticated field program involving 20 workers going door to door.

“We’re at full campaign mode,” said Steve Hildebrand, Daschle’s campaign manager.

In a race that is taking on even more national importance as the number of seats in play begins to narrow, Thune still appears to be months away from making a decision on the race, with some advisers pointing to a window of December through February for when an announcement might come.

Republicans in Washington said last week that they’ve put no added emphasis on recruiting Thune, and have made no extra effort to turn up the heat on him. “We’ve done everything we can. He’s either going to do it or not,” one Senate aide said.

GOP leaders, particularly Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.), continue to talk to Thune on a “regular basis,” the aide said. Another aide noted that, on recent trips to Washington as part of his lobbying work, Thune has spent time at the NRSC going over an “autopsy” of his race last year against Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), in which he came up 524 votes short.

But Thune continues to bide his time. “He’s taking a very good look at this race, but he has not made a decision and he does not have a timeline,” said Ryan Nelson, Thune’s former political director.

That decision-making process could become even murkier once the fate of Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.) becomes clear, with his felony manslaughter trial, a five-day affair, slated to begin Dec. 1. If Janklow is convicted and must give up his seat, or if decides to retire at the end of his term, House Republicans have made no secret of their desire to have Thune run for his old seat.

“There are a lot of things that have been put on hold in South Dakota because of the legal situation,” Allen said in a mid-September interview.

Democratic strategists contend that Daschle is the last of their incumbents who might face a top-tier challenger. A Thune decision to sidestep the race, combined with last week’s retirement announcement from Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), would essentially leave the national battleground at six races, three open Democratic seats and two Republican vacancies along with Alaska, where appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) is squaring off against former Gov. Tony Knowles (D).

Democrats are holding their breath for two pending announcements regarding the re-election status of Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who last week abandoned a presidential bid, and John Breaux (D-La.), who is expected to announce his intentions after the Nov. 15

gubernatorial election in Louisiana.

If Graham and Breaux run again, they enter the race as prohibitive favorites.

Each side points to several other potentially difficult races. Republicans are going after Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Democrats hope to target Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), but those races have yet to fully develop and the challengers have not yet proven their bona fides.

That makes Thune’s decision a potential momentum shifter in the overall arc of the Senatorial campaigns to come.

For now, Thune is taking an approach that Daschle can’t hurt what he can’t hit — as long as Thune isn’t an official candidate, Daschle can’t go negative against him. “If he gets in the race right now, he’s going to get attacked,” one GOP strategist in Washington said.

As one Republican in South Dakota described Daschle’s current situation, “They can’t spend their millions beating [Thune] up every day.”

An NRSC poll in July found the race to be statistically even, with Daschle ahead 48 percent to 46 percent, putting the race within the margin of error. More importantly to GOP strategists in South Dakota and Washington, Thune’s approval ratings hadn’t budged since the end of the 2002 campaign. He was still viewed favorably by 63 percent of South Dakota voters and unfavorably by just 22 percent.

Thune believes that, coming so soon off a major statewide race, the infrastructure for a campaign against Daschle is already in place and could be activated with plenty of time to spare for what would instantly become the highest profile Senate race in the nation. And, Republicans contend, Daschle has become such a polarizing figure that fundraising wouldn’t be any problem.

But some Republicans in Washington are worried that Thune’s indecision paralyzes any potential back-up challenger, who, according to one aide, won’t be able to raise the at least $5 million it would take to be competitive in the race. (Thune spent more than $5.9 million against Johnson, and Daschle has set a minimum goal of raising $10 million for the race, and, with his $1.3 million from last quarter, has now raised more than $5.3 million so far this cycle.)

With Thune still on the sidelines, an aide said, “It becomes all or nothing.”

Daschle isn’t waiting for Thune to make up his mind.

He began another round of television ads last week, a pair of spots running in the Sioux Falls and Rapid City media markets. Those ads come on top of the 6,000 gross-rating points in four ads that pounded the airwaves in July and August.

By the end of October, Daschle’s campaign expects its 20 field operatives to have visited 30,000 homes across the state. He’s held 14 community food events since the start of the summer, a mix of barbecues, chili suppers and pancake breakfasts in which every registered voter in the region is invited to attend.

In advance of those 14 events, Daschle used a pre-recorded phone message to let 80,000 registered voters know of the events. His campaign said 68,000 voters then received follow-up calls from staffers.

Indian reservations were a particular focus, with four of the so-called “community feeds” taking place on reservations, events that drew a total of 4,000 people. Another 4,500 people attended the other community feeds.

In a state where voter turnout is likely to be between 300,000 and 350,000, Daschle has already reached one out of four voters, according to his campaign, either through a phone call, an event or both.

No other incumbent is spending nearly as much as the Minority Leader. He’s already topped $2 million in spending for the first nine months of 2003.

In the second quarter he spent more than $671,000 — almost $70,000 more than Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) laid out for a race in which turnout could top 9 million voters.

In addition to the large staff and early television buys, Hildebrand said the campaign spent heavily on direct mail, in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” That effort has yielded 14,000 new donors, he said.

While it wasn’t the intended effect, Daschle’s flurry of activity has sent the signal that he has absolutely no intention of abandoning the race, as many Republicans and some Democrats speculated he might last summer.

“You don’t do these things,” Hildebrand said of the ad buys and campaign stomping, “unless you’re fully committed.”

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