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The Real Fight in South Dakota Pits Hildebrand, Wadhams

Some people viewed the 2002 South Dakota Senate race between Sen. Tim Johnson (D) and then-Rep. John Thune (R) as a surrogate battle that was really between Johnson’s colleague, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and President Bush, who recruited Thune into the contest and often found himself at odds with Daschle.

This year, I see the South Dakota Senate battle as a fight between the two campaign managers, Steve Hildebrand for Daschle and Dick Wadhams for Thune. [IMGCAP(1)]

I’ve often thought that consultants and handlers receive too much credit (and blame) for what happens in elections, but the two managers in this year’s South Dakota Senate race deserve watching. Each is a star in his party and will be tested as state and national media examine the Senate contest with a magnifying glass.

The bulk of Wadhams’ political experience has been in Colorado. He worked for Sen. Bill Armstrong (R), and managed Rep. Hank Brown’s successful Senate race to replace the retiring Armstrong. After stints with unsuccessful Colorado Senate candidate Terry Considine and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Wadhams managed Wayne Allard’s first Senate bid, which involved a tough primary against the state’s sitting attorney general, Gale Norton, and a competitive general election.

Two years later, Wadhams managed state Treasurer Bill Owens’ successful bid for governor of Colorado before joining Owens’ staff as press secretary.

Hildebrand, 43, grew up in Mitchell, S.D. His father, who built roads, was killed in an accident when Hildebrand, the youngest of nine children, was 5 years old.

After college, Hildebrand went to work for Senate candidate Daschle, as the then-Congressman’s state finance director. He also worked on Senate campaigns for Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey and businessman Ted Muenster (D-S.D.), and for unsuccessful South Dakota gubernatorial candidate Jim Beddow.

Hildebrand served as executive director of the Democratic parties in Minnesota and South Dakota, and as Midwest political director for the Democratic National Committee during President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign.

After a cycle as political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, another at EMILY’s List and some time as state director for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in Iowa, Hildebrand returned to South Dakota to manage Sen. Johnson’s re-election effort in 2001-2002. He took the reins of Daschle’s re-election effort last year.

Wadhams and Hildebrand both have extensive experience and have put together highly regarded campaigns. But in at least one respect, they are as different as day and night.

Hildebrand prefers to avoid the limelight, working behind the scenes on strategy and tactics. Wadhams is more comfortable to be in the spotlight. During his past campaigns, Wadhams sometimes received more media attention than his candidate — which is what happens to a guy who is a great quote — and he doesn’t shy from delivering attacks and absorbing criticism.

Last week, for example, Wadhams was widely quoted in the state’s media about Daschle campaign telephone calls that failed to include a required disclaimer. “Their hypocrisy is unbelievable,” Wadhams said in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Hildebrand, in contrast, did not appear in reporter Mike Madden’s story. Instead, Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer was on the record for the Senator’s campaign.

Both Hildebrand and Wadhams agree that the South Dakota race is about the candidates, not the managers. And each says that while he knows a bit about the other’s previous races, the 2004 Senate contest in South Dakota is very different from the one that took place two years ago.

Wadhams has never run a race in South Dakota, while his opposite number is perhaps the state’s most experienced political operative. That should give Hildebrand a better feel for the state and an intuitive advantage about what will work during the campaign.

In fact, both agree that experience in the state is an asset, though they differ on how much. “The benefits [of having run Johnson’s 2002 Senate campaign] are incredible. We get to take the best parts of ’02 and perfect them for ’04,” says Hildebrand.

“Someone who has been here for a long time brings institutional knowledge to a campaign,” acknowledges Wadhams, who grew up in rural Colorado. “But coming into the state has some advantages. You have a fresh perspective. You aren’t bound by the past. Generals sometimes fight the last war, but I’m not bound by what happened in South Dakota in 2002 or before,” he adds.

Unlike two years ago, Thune is no longer a Member of Congress. To Hildebrand, that is a liability for the challenger, since Thune “has less of a platform” and “can’t do certain events” this time around.

Not surprisingly, Wadhams disagrees. “We have absolute flexibility with the schedule [this time]. John doesn’t have to rush back to D.C. [to vote],” he counters persuasively.

Hildebrand and Wadhams disagree about many things, including Thune’s style in this race and Daschle’s legislative record. But most of that is spin.

What isn’t spin is that the Daschle-Thune race starts off close and will be determined by what the candidates do and how they do it. And some of that will depend on decisions that Hildebrand and Wadhams have already made — and on decisions they will make over the next few months.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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