The two candidates for Daschle’s Senate seat covered subjects ranging from Iraq to ethanol in the nearly 60-minute debate.
The debate drew the sharpest comments when the two candidates addressed a recent statement by Republican Party Chairman Randy Frederick, who wrote in a fundraising letter, “Daschle’s three years as Complainer in Chief have brought shame to the honor of his office, concern to our men and women in uniform, and comfort to America’s enemies.”
Asked if he had any problem with the remarks that appear to echo the definition of treason — “to give aid and comfort to the enemy” — Republican candidate Thune responded that he would have not used those words, but then leveled his own charges.
“What it does is emboldens our enemies and undermines the morale of our troops,” Thune said. “His words embolden the enemy.”
Calling the comments “disappointing,” a visibly angry Daschle accused Thune of attacking not just the Democrat’s policies but his roots and family upbringing.
“John’s attacks on me, where I come from, would earn a trip to the woodshed,” Daschle said. “He knows that’s wrong. His effort to demonize me won’t work in South Dakota.”
The two candidates repeatedly returned to the themes that have dominated the race: that Daschle is a political obstructionist who is working against a president popular in South Dakota versus a Republican who would be unwilling to stand up to his party or the president to protect the interests of the state.
“John’s a follower, and I think there’s something to be said for following, but you’ve got to be more than a follower in the United States Senate,” Daschle said. “We just can’t follow this president or any president. I will support him when he’s right, I will oppose him when he’s wrong.”
Thune countered that Daschle was more interested in national political gamesmanship than in helping South Dakotans. The Republican pointed to efforts to pass a drought relief package for farmers and ranchers in 2002. Thune accused Daschle of playing politics after President Bush said he would support relief if it were covered in the budget.
“[Daschle] goes to the Senate and tries to pass a bill and he never got it ultimately passed but tried to pass a bill that he knew the president wouldn’t sign because they wanted an issue and not a solution. We need solutions,” Thune said.
The tone remained contentious throughout the debate, a fact not lost on political reporters covering the debate for South Dakota’s newspapers.
“One thing seemed clear throughout the show: Daschle and Thune don’t like each other much,” Mike Madden wrote in Monday’s Argus Leader. “Daschle pointed a pen at Thune as he argued with him and tapped it on his notepad while emphasizing his points. They cut each other off constantly, sometimes talking over Russert as well.”
The two candidates have poured money into advertising and the coming months appear to hold even more as the campaigns and outside groups continue to focus on the contest.
According to the latest fundraising information, Daschle has raised more money that any other incumbent, more than $11 million, and Thune tops the ranks of challengers having brought in more than $6 million.