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Longtime South Dakota senator locked in a bitter battle

Race among 8 that will decide control of Senate

Tom Daschle
Tom Daschle

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Tom Daschle has spent nearly half his life on Capitol Hill. Both sides in this year's marquee Senate race say that's the key to victory.

The 56-year-old Senate Democratic leader thinks his clout in Capitol power corridors will persuade voters to overlook his liberal, Bush-bashing voting record and give him a fourth term.

"I'm proud to have put South Dakota at the front of the line," Daschle told the New York Daily News, casting himself as the prince of pork at every turn.

Former Rep. John Thune, 43, the GOP challenger, believes South Dakota's prairie populists have a pattern of tossing out their senators after a while and constantly reminds voters Daschle has been in Washington for 26 years.

"It's time," Thune's ads trumpet, arguing Daschle has forgotten his small-state roots and is the "chief obstructionist" to a president still highly popular in the Mount Rushmore state.

Daschle is in the fight of his political life. He and Thune will pour a combined $40 million into a bitterly contested race that is still a dead heat.

"Somebody will win by a couple of thousand votes, and it comes down to turnout," says a senior GOP strategist in Washington.

The South Dakota shootout is one of eight races that will decide who controls the Senate in the 109th Congress. Most analysts predict the GOP will keep its narrow grip on power and will likely add a seat or two to its slim 51-49 majority.

Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, puts the odds at 70 percent that the GOP will retain control. For Democrats to recapture the Senate, they must win at least six of the eight contests.

Republicans are already conceding Illinois, where state Sen. Barack Obama, whose keynote speech wowed the Democratic National Convention, will win big. That pickup, however, should be neutralized by a probable GOP win in Georgia.

While Democrats are defending five open seats in Southern states Bush is expected to win, only the most optimistic GOP partisans believe Republicans can reach a "working majority" of the 55 or 56 seats needed to approve controversial legislation or judicial appointments.

But the GOP has made beating Daschle a priority and thinks it has a winner in Thune, the state's only congressman for six years until he lost a Senate race to Tim Johnson two years ago by 524 votes.

Thune says Daschle's views on abortion, gun control, gay marriage and other social issues are more in sync with Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy than his constituents. "He's not listening to us anymore," Thune charged during a Sioux Falls debate last week. "He's following his national party's agenda."

The former basketball star from tiny Murdo (pop. 600) argues he can do more for the state with a Republican president and Senate than Daschle.

"He wants you to believe the state's going to go down the tank if he's not there," Thune told The Daily News at his campaign headquarters last week. "That's crazy."

Daschle countered: "It's one thing to talk. It's another thing to do." He reels off his success in keeping Ellsworth Air Force Base open and protecting federal subsidies for the state's ethanol producers as evidence of his clout.