After John Kerry, who is the second most-despised Democrat Republicans would like to see defeated on Election Night? Hint: It's not John Edwards, who's part of a package deal, after all.
Instead, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is the No. 2 name on the GOP hit list. As the puppet master for 48 Democrats in the Senate, no one has done more to thwart the president's agenda on issues ranging from war to taxes to judicial appointments.
Small wonder that President Bush personally recruited Mr. Daschle's opponent, former GOP Rep. John Thune. An articulate, telegenic young conservative, Mr. Thune has already run several statewide campaigns, first winning the at-large congressional seat, and then, just two years ago, coming within 524 votes of unseating another incumbent, Sen. Tim Johnson.
As arguably the most powerful Democrat in Washington-and one with an $18 million campaign war chest-Mr. Daschle might appear to be a shoo-in for a fourth term. After all, not even his critics can charge that he fails to bring home plenty of federal bacon for his state's 750,000 residents. He also hit the television airwaves a full year in advance of his rival, who has managed to raise only two-thirds as much as the Democrat.
Yet for all his built-in advantages, Mr. Daschle finds himself in the fight of his political life. An Oct. 15 poll found the race dead even, at 49 percent apiece. Among the reasons: After more than a quarter-century in Washington, Mr. Daschle has drifted well to the left of most of his constituents, a point that Mr. Thune hammers home relentlessly. "Tom has had 26 years in Congress, but he's not listening to us anymore, and he's not leading the people of South Dakota," Mr. Thune charged during an Oct. 15 debate. "He is following his national party's agenda, and South Dakota is paying the price."
Furthermore, President Bush is tremendously popular in South Dakota, a state that he won by a whopping 23 percentage points in 2000-a better margin than in his home state of Texas. Republicans are hopeful that the Bush name at the top of the ticket will more than make up the 500-vote difference of 2002, when Mr. Thune had to carry the race all by himself.
Mr. Daschle, meanwhile, is trying his best to avoid talking about the issues-or the president-altogether. Instead, he constantly touts his success in winning federal perks for his constituents, sometimes sounding less like a senator and more like the manager of a national soup kitchen: "We need a leader who will put South Dakota's agenda on the national agenda, who will recognize that we need to be at the front of the line," he said in the debate.
No one really believes that a freshman senator-and a fiscally conservative one, at that-can match Mr. Daschle's clout in winning federal favors. So, in the final analysis, Mr. Thune is asking South Dakotans to make a tough choice, putting national interests above their own selfish desires for roads, bridges, and farm subsidies. The future of the Senate-and, by extension, the success of a second Bush term-may hinge on the outcome.