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SD Campaign Features Well-Known Names

March 29, 2002

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) _ This year’s U.S. Senate race has put retiree Wally Larsen in a real bind.

He likes Sen. Tim Johnson, the Democratic incumbent seeking a second term. But he also likes Rep. John Thune, the Republican who is challenging Johnson with support from the White House.

For Larsen, it’s more personal than political: Johnson’s grandfather was the preacher at Larsen’s old church, and Larsen worked with Johnson on transportation issues when the Democrat was in the U.S. House. Thune? He used to work for Larsen in the state transportation agency.

``I don’t like this race because they’re both good friends,″ Larsen said. ``I think they’re both well-liked by a lot of people.″

It’s an astonishing year in South Dakota politics, with every high-profile race featuring well-known candidates with widespread support and deep roots across the state. The Senate race has the most attention, but the campaigns for governor and the state’s lone House seat are also being closely tracked.

``We have three different races with political giants involved,″ said Bob Burns, a political science professor at South Dakota State University. ``That fact is what makes this election so unprecedented in South Dakota history.″

The Johnson-Thune race has been called a surrogate battle between President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that will help determine which party controls the Senate. Bush helped persuade Thune to run for Senate instead of the governor’s office, and Daschle, South Dakota’s senior senator, is helping Johnson campaign.

But Johnson and Thune are well known in their own right, and both have shown they can fend for themselves. Johnson, 55, won five straight House races before defeating GOP Sen. Larry Pressler in 1996. Thune, 41, has won three straight House elections, the last two with margins approaching 75 percent.

And in a state with only 755,000 people, many voters probably have met them or at least seen the two candidates in person at the State Fair, a homecoming parade or a small-town coffee shop.

Dwight Neuharth, a Pierre car salesman, said party loyalty may play a role in the race, but South Dakota voters have an independent streak that led the Republican state to elect two Democratic senators.

``They’ve met them and know them on a personal basis. You can do that in a state with under a million people,″ Neuharth said.

Thune had indicated he would run for governor, but changed his mind after President Bush suggested a Senate run. The president also urged four-term Gov. Bill Janklow to run for Thune’s seat, and he did.

Janklow, 62, faces a potentially nasty GOP primary with Pressler, 60, who surprised everyone last fall by attempting a political comeback in the House. The two have never liked each other much.

The winner of the June 4 primary is expected to have the edge over any Democrat in the fall.

With Thune out of the governor’s race, three Republicans and three Democrats have jumped in, including some well-known candidates. On the GOP side, state Attorney General Mark Barnett is trying to portray wealthy former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby as out of touch with most South Dakotans.

Because Janklow is term-limited, the governor’s race is the first since 1986 without an incumbent.

In contrast, the Senate battle is much like a match between two incumbents. Neither Thune nor Johnson has ever lost a campaign.

The race, considered tossup, is certain to be the most expensive in South Dakota history. It already has attracted much attention _ as well as outright meddling _ from outside the state.

The Republican and Democratic parties staged an advertising war on behalf of the candidates early this year. In the past six months, several interest groups have run ads in the state criticizing Daschle, who is not even up for re-election this year. At least one group, the conservative Club for Growth, said it hopes the anti-Daschle ads will help defeat Johnson.

For the moment, Johnson and Thune are running ads that only extol their own virtues.

The lull is unlikely to last, however. Given South Dakota’s relatively inexpensive TV commercials and potentially the control of the Senate at stake, both parties and a long list of interest groups likely will join the fray.

``I think it’s entirely natural and understandable that a lot of South Dakotans, including the candidates, might worry that not only are outside forces trying to influence the outcome, but they indeed may,″ said Alan Clem, political science professor at the University of South Dakota.

Johnson said the two candidates could lose control of the race if too many outside groups run ads.

But he said South Dakota’s small-town atmosphere should help limit the impact: ``We all know each other so well.″

The two candidates have been unable to agree on how to prevent attack ads by party committees and interest groups. Thune said some outside groups don’t seem to understand South Dakota’s people, its issues and the way state campaigns are conducted.

``As a consequence, what you get is a whole lot of gunslingers who come in here firing missiles over everybody’s heads,″ Thune said. ``In my opinion, it’s counterproductive to keeping the campaigns and the elections really focused on South Dakota issues and South Dakota voters.″

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