Daschle fights for his political life (and the Senate) in Dakota

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The Independent US

The event is billed as a "community dinner" and those in attendance at the American Legion hall on a rainy Friday evening represent every strand of this particular community in the Black Hills of song and legend.

There are families with children, veterans in wheelchairs, and ranchers incowboy boots, thick buckled belts and stetsons. They have come to listen to Tom Daschle, the most powerful Democrat in faraway Washington, but who now desperately needs their every vote.

Of all the electoral sub-plots in this 2004 presidential year, Mr Daschle's bid for a fourth Senate term from South Dakota is among the most intriguing,and certainly the most important.

On it hinges not only the political future of the man who is Senate minority leader. His fate may also decide whether his party regains the control of the Senate it lost 20 months ago.

But this critical struggle is taking place not in Texas or California, in New York or Los Angeles but across an empty swath of prairie and high plains, almost as large as England and Scotland combined, yet withfewer inhabitants than Berkshire. Three times, Mr Daschle has defied political gravity by easily winning in a state that, in the last presidential elections, is overwhelmingly Republican. This year however, he is in the fight of his life against Jim Thune, a popular former congressman.

Democrats haven't a prayer of making the net gain of 10 seats they need to recapture the House of Representatives. If they are to regain a slice of power in Washington in the event that John Kerry is defeated, the Senate is their best chance.

It won't be easy. The Republicans have an effective majority of 51 seats to 49, and, this time around, Democrats have to defend 19 seats, compared with only 14 for their opponents. Of them moreover, five are open seats in the South where the tide of history is running against the Democrats. Almost certainly, two of the five will be lost, although the Democrats are equally sure of a gain in Illinois, where the charismatic Barack Obama is set for a landslide victory in a previously Republican seat.

Thereafter, however, the arithmetic becomes complicated. If Mr Kerry wins the White House, the Democrats need no more than an overall 50/50 tie, with Vice-President John Edwards casting the deciding vote. But if Mr Bush wins a second term, then the Democrats need a net gain of two seats on 2 November. A Daschle loss would make that all but impossible.

But these momentous questions of national politics do not impinge on proceedings when he speaks on a dark rainy night in Hot Springs. Not once do the words Democrat, Republican, Kerry or Bush pass his lips during his 35-minute stump speech. Nor is there a single direct reference to Mr Thune, who is running neck and neck with Daschle.

Party allegiance is a secondary consideration. This is the man who delivers the goods for his state, working hand-in-hand with the President himself, no matter whether it is a Democrat or a Republican.

"As one of the two leaders of the US Senate, I have the opportunity to sit at one of the most powerful desks in the country, if not the world," he tells the 150-odd people in the hall, munching pork sandwiches and beans as they listen. "And I believe the sun will continue to rise over our state as long as I continue to sit at that desk."

Stirring stuff indeed for SouthDakota, whose last significant appearance in national history was the 1890 massacre of Oglala Sioux at Wounded Knee.

In khaki trousers and open neck check shirt, the minority leader reels off a litany of achievements on their behalf - how he made sure new water distribution plants were built for the state, how he fought for subsidies for the production of ethanol ("once called Daschle-gas," he jokes), and how South Dakota has the second best federal deal for highway building of any state except Alaska.

Then he recounts how he saved Ellsworth Air Force Base, a major employer in the east of the state. "I went to see the President, and we talked for 90 minutes. At the end, the President picked up the phone, called the Secretaryof Defence and said he wanted the base taken off the closure list. That's why that desk of mine is so important for South Dakota."

This is classic US pork barrel politics, practised by a master. What Mr Daschle does not mention is the President in question was Bill Clinton, whose sexual peccadilloes do not go down too well in this socially conservative and God-fearing corner of the American West.

The Thune strategy is exactly the opposite. A Christian conservative, he accuses his opponent of supporting abortion and gay marriage.

For him, MrDaschle is a man who has sold his soul to the system - a liberal and an irredeemable Washington insider out of touch with down-home South Dakota values. "Did you know that Tom Daschle held a $5,000-a-head fundraiser for his Washington friends on the top of Mount Rushmore," intones a typical Thune radio spot, referring to the state's biggest tourist attractions - "when ordinary South Dakotans can't even go to the top of Mount Rushmore?"

Unwittingly however the ad makes another point. In this critical contest,the fundraisers on both sides have been working overtime. Indeed it might be asked: Has so much ever been spent to secure the votes of so few? Thus far the incumbent has spent some $17m, and Mr Thune $12m - a combined $29m that works out at $80 for every one of the 350,000 or so South Dakotans expected to vote. Proportionately, it is surely the most expensive single campaign in the US.

This is a different Tom Daschle from the soft-spoken but intensely obstructionist who so maddens Republicans in Washington. Here in the Black Hills the godfather of South Dakota is on show.