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South Dakota vote has national focus

Race may be test run for Daschle

PIERRE, S.D. -- In what some analysts see as a test run before the November reelection battle of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, South Dakotans go to the polls Tuesday to fill the state's vacant, and only, seat in the US House of Representatives.

The two candidates, lawyer Stephanie Herseth and farmer Larry Diedrich, are running to complete the last seven months of the unexpired term of former Representative Bill Janklow, a Republican who resigned from the House on Jan. 20 and served 100 days in jail for the traffic death of a motorcyclist last August.

Herseth, a Democrat, and Diedrich, a Republican, disagree most on taxes, abortion, funding for private schools, and steps to reduce gasoline prices.

''Thankfully, I sold my SUV after the last election," said Herseth, who lost to Janklow in the 2002 race, 53 percent to 46 percent.

Herseth, who has never held elected office, and Diedrich, a four-term state legislator, also are their parties' candidates in the Nov. 2 general election for a full term in the House starting in 2005. Political activists, television and radio ads, and direct mail are pouring into South Dakota on the candidates' behalf from party campaign committees and their allied organizations.

Although some outside observers have cast the contest as a midyear test of President Bush's popularity, neither the Republican president nor his presumptive Democratic opponent, Senator John F. Kerry, has taken a personal role in the race.

South Dakota, with a heavy GOP registration advantage, traditionally supports Republican candidates for president, and Bush has held double-digit leads over Kerry in various public opinion polls conducted for news organizations throughout this year. Kerry has not set foot in South Dakota this year, even though he is on the ballot Tuesday in the state's Democratic presidential primary.

Both first lady Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice president, have campaigned on Diedrich's behalf in recent weeks.

The contest serves as a test run for Democrats, Republicans, and their respective allies to tune up their get-out-the-vote efforts before the nationally watched battle between Daschle and his Republican challenger, former Representative John Thune.

Two years ago, Thune came within about 500 votes of upsetting Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat. The Democrats' massive turnout drives had been largely responsible for pushing Daschle over the top in 1986 and Johnson in 1996 against established GOP incumbents in a state where Republicans are the dominant party.

A Herseth victory could affect the chemistry surrounding Daschle's reelection bid, said Alan Clem, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Dakota. Democrats would hold the state's one House seat and both Senate seats, and Republicans might try to reclaim a spot in the delegation. ''I don't think it could possibly help Daschle," Clem said. ''The question is, how much does it hurt him?"

In the final debate of the House contest Thursday night, Herseth said she supported Bush's position on a narrowly-defined constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, supported Bush on his most recent approach to Iraq, and praised the intelligence gathering by the United States and its allies in the war on terrorism.

Herseth, 33, is one of the candidates featured nationally this election cycle by EMILY's List, a political action organization that supports female Democratic candidates who are prochoice and describes itself as ''100 percent committed to taking back the country from Bush Republicans." Herseth led Diedrich in a February poll, 58 percent to 29 percent, but the gap has since narrowed to a statistical dead heat.

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