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GOP Aims for Traditionally Democratic American Indian Vote

Bruce Whalen (search) is trying to persuade people around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (search) to do something they just don't do: vote Republican.

The task may seem daunting — if not impossible — in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 11-to-1. But Republicans believe the Indian vote could play a decisive role in this year's closely watched Senate race between Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (search) and former GOP Rep. John Thune (search).

They say Daschle has failed to use his clout in Washington to solve rampant problems on the reservation, where people live in almost Third World conditions. Unemployment is more than 70 percent and average annual income is around $3,500 in Shannon County, which makes up much of the reservation.

Whalen, the Shannon County GOP chairman, believes that Democrat-backed government programs that dole out entitlements to Indians are the root of the problem.

"I see how the social programs are devastating the people around here," Whalen, a 41-year-old college student and Lakota Sioux Indian, said during a recent break from classes at Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota College. "The Democrats are hurting us."

Shannon County, with a population of about 12,000, has only 476 registered Republicans to 5,171 Democrats.

Republicans have painful memories of a Senate race two years ago in which Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson defeated Thune by 524 votes statewide. In Shannon County, Johnson trounced Thune, 2,856 to 248.

The county's votes did not come in until about 12 hours after the polls closed, and they tipped the balance to Johnson, leading to suspicions of vote-tampering on the reservation.

It is too early to know if the Daschle-Thune contest will be as close, but the Republicans do not want to miss any opportunity in one of the year's most intriguing races.

Daschle is by far South Dakota's most powerful politician, with three terms in the Senate and more than eight years as the Senate Democratic leader. His leadership position has brought immense clout to this rural state of about 750,000.

Thune is a former three-term congressman who party leaders believe has the name recognition and charisma to knock off Daschle. He has the backing of the White House and other big-name Republicans who would love to unseat one of President Bush's most persisent critics.

Daschle agreed Indians will play a big role in this year's Senate race. But he said a Democrat is better suited to represent them in the long run and help with issues such as health care, law enforcement, and housing.

South Dakota's nine Indian reservations could play a role in another closely watched campaign this year: a special election in June to fill the congressional seat that Rep. Bill Janklow gave up after being convicted of manslaughter in a traffic accident.

In 2002, Thune was hurt by an intense get-out-the-vote effort by Democrats that helped boost Indian voter turnout by 20 percent. He said that this year will be different and that Daschle is vulnerable.

"The argument I make to (Indians) is, you've had 26 years of Tom Daschle and what has improved? Are your lives really any better? You still have high unemployment, high poverty, addiction and mortality rates that exceed national levels," Thune said.

Joe American Horse of Pine Ridge has not been swayed by either campaign. American Horse, a Republican who plans to vote Independent, said he has not heard much from the Republicans.

"I saw a lot of campaign advertising on Sen. Daschle, but I haven't seen anything on the other party, I think his name is Thune. There's very little. Maybe they're going to do a sneak attack," American Horse, 67, said.

Thune has picked up some key support from Indian activist-turned-politician Russell Means, who is campaigning for Thune. The Democratic Party helped establish a system that makes Indians beholden to the federal government, and Daschle helped create such an environment, Means said.

"I mean it's pure communism and it's an abject failure. Just like it was in the Soviet Union. It's failure. You've created a dictatorship by the Bureau of Indian Affairs," Means said.

Daschle said that people on reservations would like to be on their own, but that is not possible without help. Treaty obligations require the government to provide health care, education and housing, he said.

"We have Third World conditions," Daschle said. "Those treaty obligations ought to be respected and fulfilled."