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S.D. Senate race could tip balance of power
South Dakota's U.S. Senate race is one of the most closely watched campaigns in the nation. The balance of power in the Senate depends on just a few key races, including the one in South Dakota. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson is running for re-election against South Dakota's only House member, Republican John Thune. It's a race between two men whom people know and like. Political analysts say the importance of this vote is one South Dakotans will never see again.

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Image Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.)

Tim Johnson and John Thune both say they represent South Dakota values. Both were raised in South Dakota. Both have families here. They are everyone's next door neighbor. But for all their similarities, their election strategies couldn't be more different.

Democrat Tim Johnson works the room at a neighborhood pie and coffee meeting. He shakes everyone's hand. He stops to autograph a piece of paper for a child in a wheelchair. Johnson invites neighborhoods and whole towns to events like this. Some are pancake feeds, some are barbecues, all involve food. He doesn't talk a whole lot about what's going on in Washington. Instead, Johnson listens.

"People are hungry for this kind of thing, literally," Johnson says. "I think people are fed up with all the poisonous radio and TV that goes on, and they're just looking for a chance to talk a little bit to the candidate. (They want to) get a sense of where he's at on some issues in a civil, constructive kind of fashion. So that's what we've been doing."

Johnson says shaking hands and looking people in the eye still works in South Dakota.

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Image Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) rally

Republican John Thune says he's out shaking hands too. But he reaches thousands at some of his rallies. In fact, three times he's shared the stage with President George W. Bush.

Thune says the people of South Dakota like the president and connect with him.

"There's just a comfort there," Thune says. "I think he's someone who inspires trust, and so hopefully when he comes out here he continues to create that kind of atmosphere."

President Bush is expected to visit South Dakota again in the final days of the campaign. Even members of the Bush cabinet are spending time in the state.

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Image Senators Johnson and Daschle

Bill Richardson, dean of the University of South Dakota political science department, says these visits help only if there's a positive message for South Dakota. Richardson says when the president spoke at Mount Rushmore this summer, he didn't help John Thune. In fact, the president used the event to announce there wouldn't be emergency assistance for drought-stricken ranchers.

"That hurt. That did nothing, I think, for the Thune campaign," Richardson says. "There have to be visible signs that a Bush alliance with Thune has tangible benefits."

But the team of Johnson and Senate Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who is also from South Dakota, will have to prove itself as well. Tim Johnson says if he's re-elected, South Dakota will benefit from the team in the Senate.

"Here we are now, as some people have noted, the most powerful Senate delegation in America -- the majority leader and a senator on the Appropriations Committee simultaneously," Johnson says. "It is a one-two punch the likes of which this state has never seen before, in terms of the clout we have now and the things we can do now. And I think there are a lot of people out there -- including Republicans and independents -- saying, 'Why should we give that up?'"

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Image Rep. Thune

For Congressman John Thune, the race is about political balance.

"South Dakota would benefit from having muscle on both sides of the aisle. I think right now we kind of have a one-sided team in the United States Senate," Thune says. "We got people who can work with the Democrat side -- Tom Daschle can work with the Democrats.

I could work with the Democrats, but I also could work with the Republicans and with the White House, and I think that's a very powerful combination for South Dakota."

John Thune has been a candidate for Senate for more than a year. He wanted to run for governor, but President Bush persuaded him to challenge Tim Johnson. That means South Dakotans have seen political ads about this race and others for more than a year.

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Image Grim Reaper

And there have been a lot of those ads. South Dakota is a cheap media buy. Commercial stations have sold out every available advertisement slot through election day.

The campaigns aren't buying all those ads. Many are paid for by special interest groups and national parties. Those attack ads can be startling. One accuses Rep. Thune of poisioning drinking water. Another suggests Sen. Johnson wants to burn down the forests in the Black Hills. There have been pictures of Tim Johnson with Saddam Hussein, and John Thune voting against senior citizens.

Political scientist Bill Richardson says the ads aren't making any voters change their minds.

"What may work on the East Coast and what may work on the West Coast -- when these third parties come in to South Dakota, they don't necessarily realize that isn't the best strategy -- to promote the negativism and the attack ads," Richardson says. "It gets attention but it may not get the votes."

One of the ads is paid for by the National Right to Work Committee. The group wants legislation to stop forced union dues. It's an issue that plays well in many states. But in South Dakota, where unions have little clout, it only affects about 1,500 people. But the ad is dramatic.

A male voice says, "Call Senator Tim Johnson. Demand he cut his ties with the greedy union kingpins who pay for his campaigns, and demand he apologize for his support for forced unionism."

Kirstin Andersen, communications director for the National Right to Work Committee, defends the ad.

"We're not saying that people shouldn't support him, or they should vote one way or the other," Andersen says. "What we're saying is that people need to lobby him, and right now is when politicians are really listening to the folks back home. They really want to conform to the wishes of the people who are voting for them."

Both Johnson and Thune want control of what voters hear, but they can't stop special interest groups from advertising.

In the final days of the campaign, allegations of voter fraud have surfaced. The allegations have the attention of the U.S. Attorney and the FBI. No one will say how widespread the case is.

The U.S. Senate race in South Dakota is a statistical dead heat. The outcome depends on a handful of undecided voters. For them, it comes down to a choice. Does South Dakota still go for pie and pancakes? Or can the power of the presidency make a difference?

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