RAPID CITY, S.D. - The bare-knuckle partisanship that divides Capitol Hill came to this sparsely populated state yesterday, as Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader, took the unusual step of campaigning against his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tom Daschle, on Daschle's home turf.
The much-anticipated visit on behalf of John Thune, the Republican former congressman who two years ago lost by just 524 votes to Tim Johnson, South Dakota's other Democratic senator, was to include back-to-back Republican fund-raising dinners and a morning tour of Ellsworth Air Force Base here.
"I'm here in South Dakota because I love John Thune," Frist told reporters, with Thune standing at his side just after they toured the base. He added, "John Thune, I know would be a perfect United States senator to serve the people of South Dakota."
The visit puts a national spotlight on a race that is widely expected to be the most expensive and competitive Senate contest this year. Thune, a close ally of President Bush's, is immensely popular in South Dakota, as is Daschle. While Daschle is playing up his considerable influence as minority leader, Thune plays up his ties to the president in a heavily Republican state where Bush has broad support.
"You'd have to give Daschle an edge, but boy, this is going to be an extremely close race," said Charlie Cook, the editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter. Daschle, Cook said, "is the only elected incumbent in the entire U.S. Senate that you could say is in serious trouble."
Already, Daschle has spent $6.5 million campaigning since January 2003. That includes more than $1 million on television advertisements that have been running since last July. The Thune campaign, which has raised $1.4 million in the past six weeks alone and expects to raise $6 million all told, has not started television advertising; Thune says he will wait at least until June, because he does not want voters to get sick of the race.
"I have people ask me, `When are you going to go on television?'" he said. "But the majority of people thank me."
Frist's visit will give Thune the kind of publicity a campaign could never buy, nationally and at home. The trip is part of a campaign swing the majority leader is making through a half-dozen states. Whether it will help Thune or backfire is a matter of dispute between the Daschle and Thune camps.
"Frist is coming here to say, `I want to take your power away and replace that power with a freshman,'" said Steve Hildebrand, Daschle's campaign manager. He said South Dakotans would resent outside intrusion in the campaign.
Thune disagreed. "There are some people who won't wear well in South Dakota," he said. "I think Frist will wear well here."
The Thune campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, said Frist's appearances, in both Rapid City and Sioux Falls, would remind voters that "it serves South Dakota to have a Republican senator who can work with the Republican majority."
In Washington, Frist has come under considerable criticism for the visit, from Democrats and also independent scholars who say he is violating an unwritten rule of protocol in the Senate that says party leaders should not campaign against one another.
"I never did," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the Democratic former majority leader.
Yet rarely do Senate leaders face stiff competition of the sort Thune presents to Daschle. Speaker Thomas S. Foley famously lost his seat when Republicans took control of the House in 1994; the last time a Senate party leader lost a bid for re-election was in 1952, when Sen. Ernest McFarland, the Democratic leader, lost to Barry M. Goldwater, the Arizona Republican.
"Daschle's seat could make the difference between majority and minority," said Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "That's why I think Frist is literally going all out on this one, and in the process casting aside all the norms that used to exist."
A recent independent poll suggests that the race is too close to call. The survey, published Thursday by The Argus Leader, the statewide newspaper, found Daschle with 49 percent, Thune with 47 percent. A poll put out by the Daschle campaign earlier in the week found the senator leading 55 percent to 42 percent.
The two camps have fought about the numbers all week. Wadhams, the Thune campaign manager, called the Daschle poll `'a fairy tale," while Hildebrand, the Daschle campaign manager, said the Argus numbers "got pulled out of thin air."
Beyond his visit to South Dakota, Frist has also been helping Thune raise money; he has held several fund-raisers for Thune, and his political action committee has so far steered more than $100,000 in contributions to the Thune campaign, according to the campaign.
Recently, the majority leader sent a fund-raising letter on Thune's behalf.