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Thune to Get Star Billing This Week

Wherever he goes in New York this week, former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) will receive a hero’s welcome.

The city’s most famous statesman — former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) — will appear as the guest of honor at a sold-out brunch fundraiser for Thune’s Senate campaign Tuesday at Chelsea Piers. The event, according to informed sources, is aimed at so-called “Rangers” and “Pioneers” — those who have helped bundle hundreds of thousands of dollars to President Bush.

The Giuliani fundraiser is just one of several appearances Thune will be making this week. But his status as a hot commodity appears to have as much to do with the man he is trying to defeat — Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) — as with Thune himself.

“In his own right John is an admirable guy, but beyond that, the fact that he is taking on Daschle has a tremendous amount of symbolism to it,” said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.

Thune has a full complement of events on his plate, beginning today, when he speaks from the convention podium during the opening session along with half a dozen other Republican Senate contenders.

After the Chelsea Piers fundraiser Tuesday, Thune will appear at a Jewish GOP fundraiser and then at a National Republican Senatorial Committee press event at 2 p.m.

On Wednesday afternoon, Thune will attend a “retirement party” fundraiser for Daschle, sponsored by the NRSC.

“We want to spread a message about why it’s important to replace Tom Daschle in the Senate if we want to get anything done,” Thune said in an interview late last week. “We are going to see a lot of people who might be inclined to contribute to the campaign.”

To Republicans, Daschle has emerged as the symbol of Democratic roadblocks to GOP initiatives in the Senate and, as a result, has been the target of a prolonged media campaign designed to undermine his own chances of re-election.

Currently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association and a group called You’re Fired are running advertisements against Daschle. The NRSC has reserved more than $2 million worth of air time for an independent expenditure ad campaign set to begin Sept. 7.

Daschle has been on the air for more than a year with ads touting his accomplishments for the state. He has fueled that ad campaign with an astounding fundraising effort, bringing in better than $13 million as of June 30. He is expected to spend $15 to $20 million total for the contest.

Daschle deputy campaign manager Dan Pfeiffer predicted that Thune’s decision to attend the convention will crystallize for voters Thune’s ties to the national party.

“The reception Thune is getting at the convention is proof positive that he is bought and paid for by the national Republican Party and their special interest friends,” Pfeiffer said.

Bush did carry South Dakota with 60 percent in 2000, a vote total he is likely to equal in November.

Thune’s attempt to match Daschle’s fundraising is the prime motivator for his decision to spend several days in New York with just two months before South Dakota voters head to the ballot box, several sources confirmed.

At the end of June, Thune had raised roughly $6 million in five months of active fundraising — equaling the total amount he brought in during his entire 2002 challenge to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). He lost that race by just 524 votes.

“There is no campaign manager in their right mind that would send a candidate who is up for election in a month or two to fly clear across the country if there wasn’t the benefit of added exposure to folks who can raise money,” said one Republican strategist. “There isn’t enough money in South Dakota to fund the level of race he is looking at.”

Another well-connected Republican source compared Thune’s decision to attend the convention to the reason Willie Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks.

“Because that’s where the money is,” Sutton said.

As of June 30, Thune and Daschle had both raised more than 50 percent of their total contributions from outside of South Dakota, a testament to the national attention being paid to this contest and the relative dearth of political money in the state.

Several Republicans cast Thune’s presence at the convention as a rallying point for delegates, politicians and other GOP leaders united in their desire to oust Daschle.

“John Thune and the position he is in right now will serve to energize everybody at the convention,” said NRSC Communications Director Dan Allen.

Thune said he expects convention attendees to be “very responsive” to him “because they, like a lot of people in South Dakota, see how important it is we get leaders in the Senate that are going to try and proactively get an agenda done.”

While Thune is one of a handful of Republican Senate candidates who will address the assembled delegates during today’s opening session, a number of top-tier Republican Senate candidates are skipping the convention, including former Rep. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Rep. David Vitter (La.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

All insist that their decision to stay home is based more on a desire to stump for votes than any attempt to distance themselves from the president.

In last month’s Democratic convention, a number of Senate candidates — especially those running in Republican-leaning states — skipped the convention to avoid easy links to the national party.

Daschle, however, did attend a portion of the convention — even delivering a speech to delegates during prime time.