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Republicans Have an Answer to Daschle

Former Rep. Thune says he'll oppose the Senate minority leader from South Dakota.

January 06, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Republican officials, hoping to rid themselves of one of President Bush's peskiest nemeses, have lined up former GOP Rep. John R. Thune to challenge Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota this fall.

Thune, who was first elected in 1996 and served three terms as the state's only House member, announced his intention to run for the Senate seat at a GOP dinner in Sioux Falls, S.D., Monday night.

The challenge comes as Daschle has his hands full trying to keep Republicans from expanding their slim majority in the Senate. Five Democratic senators from the South have announced plans to retire this year, and their seats could be difficult for Democrats to retain. Republicans now hold 51 of the Senate's 100 seats.

In 2002, Thune narrowly lost a Senate race -- one that Bush urged him to enter -- against the state's other Democratic senator, Tim Johnson. But a South Dakota GOP official said the party would seek to portray Daschle, already the target of hard-hitting campaign ads, both as more liberal than Johnson and as an obstructionist who has sought to block Bush's agenda.

Republican strategists note that Bush handily defeated Democrat Al Gore in the state in the 2000 presidential election. Jason Glodt, executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party, said that Daschle, as Senate minority leader, is "no longer representing South Dakota. He's representing the East and West Coast Democrats."

Daschle, who has led Senate Democrats since 1995 and won reelection in 1998 with 62% of the vote, is confident that South Dakota voters will see that his leadership position has benefited the state, said spokesman Dan Pfeiffer.

In a possible preview of the campaign, Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, accused Thune of putting the interests of the national Republican Party ahead of the interests of South Dakota by "challenging a sitting senator who every day is using his seniority to deliver for the state."

"We are prepared for a tough race, but in the end we expect that the voters will choose Sen. Daschle's clout, experience and seniority over Thune's political ambition and lack of experience and accomplishment during his short time in Congress," Woodhouse said.

Still, Daschle is taking nothing for granted. He entered the year with about $4 million in his campaign treasury and has been running TV ads since the summer, including a new one broadcast Monday.

Gary G. Aguiar, a political scientist at South Dakota State University, said Daschle is probably more vulnerable now than in previous contests. But Daschle remains popular, Aguiar said -- even among Republicans, who appreciate that he has brought federal funds to the state.

"You can't go through any town or any county here where people can't point to something and say, 'We got that because of Tom.'... Democrats and Republicans may say, 'I don't agree with the guy on X, Y and Z, but man, he brought us that firehouse, community center or some other federal project.' "

John J. Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said: "No Democrat can be safe in a state where Bush won the last election by 22 points. Thune is a formidable challenger who has represented every square inch that Daschle has represented."

But Aguiar said most local observers discount Bush's 2000 victory in South Dakota, calling it little help to Thune. "Witness Thune's 2002 campaign against Johnson, when Bush probably hurt Thune's cause by denying federal funds to drought-stricken ranchers," he said.

The GOP strategist said that among the criticisms the Republicans were likely to use against Daschle was his vote against a Medicare prescription drug benefit program. Additionally, a Thune campaign is likely to blame Democrats for blocking an energy bill that would have benefited the state's ethanol industry, even though Daschle supported the bill.

Thune passed up the chance to run for his old seat, which is due to be vacated Jan. 20 by Rep. William J. Janklow, who was convicted of manslaughter last month after running a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist.

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