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Inside Politics

Thune edges closer to challenging Daschle

Senate minority leader gears up for re-election

By Steve Turnham
CNN Washington Bureau

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle has already amassed $4 million for his re-election campaign, according to an aide.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle has already amassed $4 million for his re-election campaign, according to an aide.

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John Thune
Tom Daschle
South Dakota

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a sign that he getting close to challenging Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, in November, former Congressman John Thune has been meeting with a veteran GOP strategist about running his campaign, according to a senior GOP source.

The meetings with the strategist, Dick Wadhams, have taken place over the last six weeks. The GOP source would not say whether Thune has decided to run, but that "he is leaning our way."

In December, Thune passed up an opportunity to run for South Dakota's sole seat in the U.S. House. That seat is being vacated by Rep. Bill Janklow, who was convicted of manslaughter in the death of a motorcyclist last year, prompting speculation that Thune would jump into the Senate race.

Thune ran unsuccessfully against Democrat Tim Johnson in 2000 in one of the closest -- and most closely watched -- U.S. Senate races of the year. He lost by less than 500 votes.

If he challenges Daschle, Thune will face a formidable opponent. Daschle campaign manager Steve Hildebrand said Daschle has $4 million in his campaign war chest, and that $2 million of that was raised in the last two months alone. Hildebrand said Daschle intends to raise another $6 million this year, which would bring his total to $10 million, a phenomenal amount for a state with a population of just 750,000.

"We have spent a year preparing to run a race that we intend to win," said Hildebrand.

Republicans counter that Thune can tap a national network of Republican donors eager to knock off one of the most powerful Democrats in the country. And they say that because ads are cheap in South Dakota -- and Thune enjoys widespread name recognition in the state -- Daschle's money advantage is by no means prohibitive.

Wadhams was campaign manager for Republican Wayne Allard in 2002, when Allard easily defeated Democrat Tom Strickland in what should have been a competitive race for a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado.

Wadhams works for Allard in Washington.

Republicans believe Daschle is vulnerable over an issue of particular importance in South Dakota: ethanol, a corn-based product used as a fuel additive.

Daschle supported the Bush Administration's energy bill which would have doubled domestic production of ethanol. However, the legislation failed amid opposition from a coalition of Republicans and Democrats who objected to other provisions in the massive bill.

Republicans say Daschle failed to deliver his party and didn't honor his promise to bring more federal dollars for ethanol back home.

Daschle called the bill's failure "unfortunate" and promised to fight for the ethanol provisions in future legislation.

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