Fighting for survival as he seeks his fourth term, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle arrived back in South Dakota from Washington on Monday night bearing gifts for his constituents: newly enacted tax breaks for the state’s corn growers and a portion of the $2.9 billion in aid that Congress OK’d for farmers and ranchers whose crops and livestock were hit by drought.
The tax incentives and drought aid come at an opportune moment, three weeks prior to Election Day, as Daschle heads into the home stretch of his race against Republican John Thune, the former three-term congressman.
In a debate with Thune Tuesday night on KDLT, the NBC affiliate in Sioux Falls, Daschle portrayed himself as a tax cutter.
“This has been a terrific week for South Dakota,” he said, referring to the recent flurry of Senate action. “We eliminated the marriage penalty, provided child tax credits to families of children who need help,” and provided deductibility of state sales taxes on federal tax returns, Daschle said. “This means a reduction in taxes for most South Dakota families of at least $565.”
He also took credit for extending the tax break for ethanol producers.
Going unaddressed by Daschle, Thune or the panel of questioners was the issue of whether all this tax-cutting was not simply adding to the federal government’s deficit burden, which Daschle himself had decried two year ago after he voted against President Bush’s tax cuts and demanded “a return to fiscal responsibility.”
Links to Hillary Clinton, John Kerry
The one-hour face-off on KDLT was mostly a sedate affair, with the only small sparks generated when Thune accused Daschle of having to “answer to a Democratic caucus that is very much more liberal than the majority of South Dakotans,” with Daschle taking his marching orders from Sens. Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry.
The low-key debate contrasted with the campaign’s emotional peak so far, a Sept. 19 face-off on NBC’s "Meet the Press."
In that debate, Thune tried to capitalize on Daschle’s comment on the eve of U.S. military action against Iraq in March of 2003, “I’m saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war.”
Ten days later, Daschle sounded apologetic: “I don’t think the timing of those comments were necessarily the best. I had no idea when I said them what the timing of the military operation would be.”
On "Meet the Press," with Daschle sitting next to him, Thune said he’d talked to a soldier who said that Daschle's comments on the eve of war were so objectionable “that he could never vote for him again. And what it does is emboldens our enemies and undermines the morale of our troops.”
Appearing stunned and angry, Daschle told host Tim Russert, “That is very disappointing, Tim. John's attacks on me, where I come from, would earn a trip to the woodshed. He knows that's wrong. His effort to demonize me won't work in South Dakota.”
Looking back on that moment, both Thune and his campaign manager Dick Wadhams still say Thune did himself good, not harm, by accusing Daschle of emboldening America’s enemies.
Daschle “almost started crying,” Wadhams said. “You saw Daschle almost crack under the pressure of this race.”
Thune said, “He just kind of hunkered down and went into this victim mode.”
Daschle’s “failed so miserably” comment “was a watershed moment in terms of a lot of people’s view” of Daschle, said Thune.
'Huge blunder' by Thune
Naturally, the Daschle camp takes a different view: “It was a huge blunder on John Thune’s part,” said Daschle campaign manager Steve Hildebrand. “He leveled a very serious charge and one that can’t be backed up.”
Daschle’s voting record has leaned left of center: he voted, for example, against the 1991 Gulf War resolution after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and against John Ashcroft’s confirmation as attorney general.
Yet in a state that has gone Republican in nine straight presidential elections starting in 1968, Daschle keeps getting re-elected, a tribute to his soft-spoken amiability and prowess at routing federal money back to his state.
“Our argument is going to be very simple: Should we give up the leadership, the clout that Tom Daschle has, for a guy who will become number 100 in the U.S. Senate? I’m confident the people of South Dakota won’t do that,” said Hildebrand.
And he argues that Daschle has backed Bush when the national interest demanded it. Hence the Daschle campaign ad showing him hugging the president after Bush addressed a joint session of Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“When it matters for South Dakota, when it matters for America, Tom Daschle doesn’t care about party affiliation, he cares about what’s best for the country,” Hildebrand said.
If Thune fails to beat Daschle, it won’t be for lack of trying: Republican radio and television ads here in Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest city, have been pounding Daschle for hewing to his party’s ideology.
He must stick to the party line, because “if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be the Democrat leader,” explains a radio ad run by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The ad tars him as “Tom Daschle: loyal to a national Democrat agenda, at South Dakota’s expense.”
On the contrary, says the Daschle team, it is Thune who is the follower, the staunch Bush partisan who would not criticize the president when in 2002 he rebuffed pleas for federal drought relief.
“He is such a loyal party soldier that he can’t even bring himself, even when it is so clearly in his own political interest in this state, to not be seen as a lackey for the president,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Daschle’s campaign spokesman.
“John Thune is very much making this a race about who has the best values, making abortion, marriage, guns, all those kinds of issues that tend be Republican divisive issues, making them the forefront of his campaign,” said Hildebrand. “He’s making allegations that Tom has lost his way, that he doesn’t have South Dakota values, that he doesn’t stay in touch with people here, that he is more a Democratic leader than he is a senator for South Dakota,” he said. “I don’t know that the people of South Dakota are going to buy that; I’m confident they won’t.”
In recent days Thune and the Republicans have accused Daschle of trimming his views on abortion.
In a fund-raising letter two years ago for National Abortion Rights Action League, Daschle said he had "stood up for a woman's right to choose.”
Debate over abortion stand
Last week, Thune's campaign handed out a videotape of Daschle telling an audience of California Democrats in 2002: "We will not surrender sacred ground, and that includes a woman's constitutional right to choose."
But in a conference call with reporters last week, Daschle said, “I’m anti-abortion. I don’t believe that abortion ought to be allowed. I think that others have expressed the need for exceptions, like rape and incest and saving the life of the mother, and I share the view about those exceptions, but I think we ought to do all we can to discourage abortion.”
Thune chides Daschle for voting to block Senate consideration of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. Daschle did vote for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that permits states to refuse to legally recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
But DOMA, unlike a constitutional amendment, could be overturned by federal judges if they deem same-sex marriage a constitutional right.
“Look at (Democratic Rep Stephanie) Herseth. She voted for (the constitutional amendment) in the House. This is an issue on which there is broad consensus in South Dakota,” said Thune.
Two years ago, Thune lost to Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson by a 524-vote margin. Winning this time hinges largely on how each man does in the state’s two biggest counties, Minnehaha County in eastern South Dakota, which include Sioux Falls, and Pennington County in the western part of the state, which includes Rapid City.
Two years ago, Thune won 48 percent in Minnehaha County, while winning 60 percent in Pennington County.
He needs to at least break even in Minnehaha County or, better still, win it, while getting robust GOP turnout in Pennington County.
Hildebrand’s view: “We win it by getting almost all the Democrats, by getting 50 percent of the independents and by getting 20 percent of the Republicans. Every public poll for the past two years has shown Tom Daschle, Democratic leader of the Senate, getting between 18 and 20 percent of the Republican vote.”
Some political insiders in Sioux Falls see Republican middle-class women who favor abortion rights as the crucial segment of the electorate.
Insiders also point to another key voting bloc: allies and followers of former Gov. Bill Janklow, a Republican who has long been friendly with Daschle. At Janklow’s trial last December on manslaughter charges stemming from a car accident, Daschle testified on Janklow’s behalf.