All Eyes On Dakota House Race

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By Douglas Kiker,
CBS News Political Unit

South Dakota – yes, South Dakota – could have as much impact as any of the other 49 states in the nation when it comes to this year's House and Senate elections.

Much attention has been focused on Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who is locked in a tight race with former Rep. John Thune, the telegenic Republican who lost to Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002 by a scant 527 votes. Polls have shown Daschle leading Thune, but the state leans hard toward to the GOP in presidential elections and is such an inexpensive place to advertise that Republicans believes they have a legitimate shot at beating the Senate's top Democrat. (They are not alone: the nonpartisan Cook Political Report lists South Dakota race as one of 10 tightly contested Senate races of the 34 being held in November.) Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, breaking a tradition of civility between the leaders of the two parties, campaigned for Thune – or against Daschle, some angry Democrats would say – last weekend.

But the Senate contest isn't the only high-profile contest in the sparsely populated plains state this year. First, the state will decide next Tuesday who will fill its only House seat, which former Gov. Bill Janklow resigned after being convicted of vehicular manslaughter for a car accident in which a motorcyclist was killed after Janklow sped through a stop sign. The election pits moderate Democrat Stephanie Herseth against Republican Larry Deidrich, a conservative four-term state legislator who until recently ran the American Soybean Association.

A Herseth victory would make South Dakota's entire congressional delegation Democrats.

Barring a death or another resignation, chances are good that the South Dakota race will be the final congressional election before November. Regardless of the outcome, both parties are sure to read much in the political tealeaves, as they did back in February when Democrat Ben Chandler won a special election in Kentucky.

Although Herseth, 33, began the race with a 30-point lead over Deidrich, 46, the last public survey - conducted for KELO-TV by Mason-Dixon Polling & Media Research between May 10 and May 12 – showed Herseth's lead down to nine points, at 49 percent to 40 percent. Democrats and Republicans both acknowledge the gap has narrowed since then and the election should be decided by a razor-thin margin.

In a heated debate on Friday night, the two candidates disagreed on everything from tax cuts to the rising cost of gasoline to abortion. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported that Deidrich said Herseth has been backed by pro-abortion rights groups that "believe in partial birth abortions." An irritated Herseth replied: "What Larry Deidrich has just done is what he's been doing consistently in the past few weeks, and that's demonstrating a willingness to speak for me by suggesting positions I don't have. To suggest that I favor partial-birth abortion is absolutely wrong."

Herseth has cast herself as a moderate on many issues, including the war against Iraq (which she supports) and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (which she also supports). Herseth also hasn't made a huge effort to link herself with Daschle, Johnson or other big-name Democrats, although she did have one of her first campaign rallies with the two senators last weekend.

For his part, Deidrich doesn't seem afraid to be labeled a party-line Republican and has had one big name Republican after another – from Frist to House Speaker Dennis Hastert to first lady Laura Bush – campaigning for him. Interestingly, President Bush himself has not campaigned for Deidrich and his name was noticeably absent from a recent ad touting Deidrich's support for tax cuts. Analysts are split on whether the president's absence reflects his own political troubles or a hesitance by South Dakotans to be "told" how to vote by national party figures.

Both sides also have courted the female vote, with Herseth stressing her built-in ability to understand women's issues, and Deidrich hoping to benefit from visits by both Mrs. Bush and Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, who will campaign for him before Tuesday. Coincidentally or not, The New York Times points out that Deidrich often mentions his wife of 21 years and their four children on the stump, something the single Herseth cannot do. Polls show Herseth leading among female voters.

Democrats have high hopes for Herseth beyond Tuesday. A graduate of Georgetown University and its law school, the party thinks that the attractive, articulate Herseth could be one of its new stars. Like Kentucky's Chandler, Herseth comes from state political royalty of sorts – her grandfather was a popular governor, her grandmother was secretary of state and her father was a longtime state lawmaker – and she has benefited from that name recognition.

Republicans are quick to point out, however, that Herseth ran two years ago for the very same seat against Janklow – a popular former governor at the time – and lost by a whopping 25,000 votes out of the 336,000 cast. The AP notes that Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 44,000 in South Dakota, an advantage of nearly 10 percentage points. On the other hand, the state also has 59,000 registered independents.

Herseth has managed to out-raise and outspend Deidrich. According to documents their campaigns filed with the FEC last week, Herseth's campaign has raised $1.8 million and spent $1.7 million of that, including $1.1 million since April 1. Deidrich has raised $1.3 million and spent $1.1 million.

Both candidates have also benefited from spending by their party congressional campaign committees, with the DCCC and NRCC each chipping in about $1.3 million. And they've both gotten support from outside groups – like EMILY's List for Herseth, and House Majority Leader Tom Delay's fundraising organization for Deidrich – that see Tuesday as a bright line for the November general election.

The winner will serve until November, when the seat again is up for grabs. Barring a huge victory by either Deidrich or Herseth, analysts say Tuesday could be round one between the pair, with round two barely five months later.

By Douglas Kiker