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The Morning Grind / DayAhead

Thune, take two?

This would be Thune's second Senate run in as many years

By Steve Turnham
CNN Political Unit

Marquee matchup? Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, left, may face a November challenge from former Republican Congressman John Thune.
Marquee matchup? Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, left, may face a November challenge from former Republican Congressman John Thune.

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Morning Grind
Tom Daschle
John Thune

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- John Thune is set to announce Monday night whether he'll challenge Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in November, and while nothing's certain until Thune says the word, top Republicans in Washington are confident he'll run.

"It's our expectation that he gets in," said a senior GOP source, adding that if Thune does run he will likely choose veteran Republican strategist Dick Wadhams to be his campaign manager.

Thune is scheduled to appear tonight in Sioux Falls at the South Dakota Republican Party's Lincoln Day fund-raiser. (Thune edges closer to a run)

If he runs, it will be his second run for the Senate in two years. Karl Rove heavily recruited the lanky former congressman to resist an easy open-seat race for the governor's office in 2002 and instead challenge Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson.

President Bush, who carried South Dakota in 2000 by 22 points, stumped for Thune several times in 2002. But the president's failure to deliver drought assistance to parched South Dakota farmers that summer hurt his candidate, arguably tipping the scales against him in a race decided by 524 votes.

"Thune lost to Tim Johnson, but that doesn't mean the former Republican congressman can't beat Daschle," said CNN Political Analyst Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report. "With the Democrats in the minority in the Senate, and the state poised to vote solidly for President Bush in November, a Daschle-Thune race is a toss-up."

The race will be both hard-fought and, of course, incredibly expensive: Daschle intends to raise and spend $10 million in a state with just 750,000 people. Thune will appeal to national Republican donors eager to knock off one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington.

Daschle vs. Thune will also be a marquee matchup of two aggressive and savvy campaign managers: Steve Hildebrand, who ran Johnson's campaign, working for Daschle, and Dick Wadhams running Thune's camp.

Facing an early attack from an independent conservative group called the Daschle Accountability Project, Hildebrand told the Washington Post that he'll "spend a lot of time attacking the attackers."

The Daschle campaign already has dozens of staffers busy doing field work, raising money and researching his opponents.

The mild-mannered Wadhams is a tough, skilled political strategist. His latest achievement: turning what could have been a tight race into a relatively easy win for Sen. Wayne Allard in 2002. "Dick Wadhams knows how to win tough races," said Rothenberg.

Daschle vs. Thune is also a challenge the national Democratic Party could do without. It's already facing tough races across the South, including Louisiana with Sen. John Breaux's recent announcement that he'll retire in 2004.

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