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With Rep. Bill Janklow’s (R) conviction on manslaughter charges and subsequent decision to resign from Congress, all eyes now turn to former Rep. John Thune (R) as he weighs whether to enter the June 1, 2004, special election.

Thune has been interviewing staff for a potential bid over the past few weeks, but the question is whether he will try to win back his old House seat or choose to challenge Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D).

Close Thune confidants believe he will make a decision on the House race shortly, but if he declines that race he does not need to immediately announce a Senate bid.

[IMGCAP(1)] Thune did not return a call for comment this morning.

The picture on the Democratic side is much clearer, as 2002 nominee Stephanie Herseth has been in the race for several weeks.

“We are very enthusiastic about her prospects,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed.

The South Dakota contest is the second competitive special election slated for next year. Although Janklow will officially tender his resignation Jan. 20 — the day scheduled for his sentencing hearing — the special to replace him will take place nearly five months later. It will fall on the same day as South Dakota’s presidential primary.

In Kentucky’s 6th district, a special will be held Feb. 17 to replace Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), who is being sworn in as the state’s governor today.

Prior to Janklow’s resignation many Republicans conceded that in a special election scenario Thune would likely be the only GOPer who could defeat Herseth.

After representing the state’s at-large House district from 1996 to 2002, Thune abandoned a near-sure thing gubernatorial bid at the urging of President Bush to take on Sen. Tim Johnson (D). Thune lost that race by 524 votes, the narrowest margin of any of the 34 Senate races last cycle.

Since his defeat, Thune has played coy about his political future even as both the campaign committees have urged him to make a decision.

Clearly, the House race represents the easier road for Thune at this point.

Polling conducted in late October showed him with a 47 percent to 40 percent lead over Herseth, and he is the only Republican candidate who would be able to match her name identification in a shortened race.

Other names mentioned include former state Rep. Barb Everist and state Sen. Larry Diedrich and, most intriguingly, former Thune staffer Larry Russell.

Russell, who has worked for both Thune and the state party, has been back in the state organizing for a potential race for several months, according to an informed Republican source.

Diedrich briefly ran for the seat in 2002 but backed out when Janklow made his candidacy official.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) expressed confidence in his party’s chances despite the current uncertainty.

“South Dakota is a Republican state, and I am confident that whoever decides to run for this seat will run a strong campaign and will keep this seat in Republican hands,” he said.

Although polling done early in the summer showed Thune and Daschle running neck and neck, the South Dakota Democrat appears to have opened a lead.

Daschle had a 50 percent to 44 percent edge over Thune — the largest margin in any independent poll conducted this year.

Daschle has been on television almost continuously since August touting his accomplishments in the Senate and has cranked his fundraising machine into high gear. Daschle is expected to be sitting on $4 million at year’s end.

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