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Bush, Daschle Quiet in S.D.

Although the ads are flying fast and furious in South Dakota’s special House election, two faces are, somewhat unexpectedly, nowhere to be seen: President Bush and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Indeed, the two contenders for the vacant House seat — attorney Stephanie Herseth (D) and state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R) — have publicly downplayed the influence of the two men who lead their respective parties and have carefully avoided even referencing their names in campaign commercials.

In one television ad, Diedrich sought to draw a comparison between himself and Herseth on the question of making President Bush’s tax cuts permanent — but he omitted Bush’s name from the ad, despite the fact that the cuts were aggressively pushed by the White House.

Herseth has been even more aggressive about separating herself from Daschle. When asked recently about which elected officials most closely resembled her political philosophy, Herseth chose South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson and Ohio Congressman Ted Strickland.

While both candidates have raised money through various party surrogates, “there is a definite detachment from these national trends,” said Herseth spokesman Russ Levsen. “South Dakotans don’t like to see their representatives tied to the national party.”

This positioning on local versus national issues comes as a survey was released Tuesday that shows Herseth’s margin in the June 1 race narrowing somewhat, though she continues to lead.

The poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Media Research Inc. for KELO-TV put Herseth’s margin at 49 percent to 40 percent among registered voters and 47 percent to 44 percent among the most likely voters.

The apparent tightening of the contest puts additional pressure on both camps to avoid even the slightest miscalculation.

Given the slim margin for error, both Diedrich and Herseth seem unwilling to introduce either Bush or Daschle into the campaign.

For one thing, voters in the state are exhibiting some ambivalence about both politicians. Bush, usually a politician who runs strong in the state, has been weakened somewhat over concerns about the war in Iraq. And Daschle always has to watch his back over his leadership of a party that is more liberal than are many South Dakota voters.

In addition, many South Dakotans have tired of seeing their statewide races “nationalized,” and oftentimes turned nasty, by outside forces, beginning with an open governor’s race and a hard-fought Senate race in 2002 and continuing with Daschle’s tight re-election campaign this year.

The experience earlier this year in Kentucky — where the GOP lost a special House election — is also high on the minds of Republicans. In Kentucky, Republican state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr ran an ad claiming that she and Bush were “cut from the same cloth.” The ad’s centerpiece was footage of her and President Bush in conversation.

Republican insiders now acknowledge that the decision to link Kerr so closely to Bush backfired, because it reinforced the Democratic message that Kerr would be little more than a robot for the Republican agenda.

Former state Attorney General Ben Chandler won that race 55 percent to 43 percent to claim a seat previously held by a Republican.

“There is a wish [in South Dakota] to avoid getting branded with the rubber-stamp charge that worked so well against Alice Forgy Kerr,” one Republican strategist acknowledged. “Why play into what Democrats want to talk about?”

Democrats, too, aren’t eager to link Herseth and Daschle too closely. Strategists believe that Herseth must emerge as a force in her own right — and a voice that doesn’t march in lockstep with the national party leadership — in order to win the race.

Indeed, both national party committees were quick to refute the idea that the contest has any national implications.

“This Congressional race is about experience,” said National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Carl Forti. “It is about who can hit the ground running and work with a Republican Congress.”

DCCC Communications Director Kori Bernards added that the special election winner will be chosen not by their national surrogates but rather “based on the strength of their positions on the issues.”

But try as they might to forge their own identities, the candidates are finding national figures flocking to the state anyway, often with the candidates’ tacit support.

First lady Laura Bush raised money and campaigned with Diedrich on Tuesday. Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president, will travel to the state on Diedrich’s behalf on Friday. Last month Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) stumped with Diedrich.

“We are thankful for the support of the Administration,” said Diedrich spokeswoman Danielle Holland.

On the Democratic side, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) has campaigned in South Dakota, as have Reps. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) and Mike Thompson (Calif.). Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell is also scheduled to stump for Herseth.

Indeed, both candidates in the special have proven more than willing to accept the fundraising dollars netted from such events. It is mainly in their public statements and advertisements that they are trying to maintain distance.

Herseth’s omission of Daschle as a cited inspiration is noteworthy since she has historically been seen as an acolyte of the South Dakota Senator, who has been the unquestioned leader of the state Democratic Party since his ascension to the Senate in 1986.

One Democratic House leadership aide explained that “Herseth needed to be a different person than Daschle and not a clone. She needed to establish her own positions on issues and her own campaign.”

Dick Wadhams, campaign manager for the Senate bid of former Rep. John Thune (R), took a different message from Herseth’s statement.

“For her to go out of her way not to mention Daschle reflects her fear that he is too far left and polarizing,” Wadhams said.

Daschle deputy campaign manager Dan Pfeiffer said that Daschle’s relative lack of involvement in the race is more indicative of South Dakota voters’ distaste for being told what to do than it is a statement about what voters think of him.

“What does not work in South Dakota is trying to transfer popularity from one politician to another,” Pfeiffer said.

Other knowledgeable Democrats suggest that Herseth has avoided making a partisan appeal in the race because Republicans far outnumber Democrats in the state.

One GOP consultant added that if Herseth chose to link herself to Daschle it could remind voters that she could become the state’s third Democratic member of Congress.

“Democrats are trying to tiptoe past the graveyard of whether South Dakota wants an all-Democratic delegation in Washington,” said the source.