SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search) and former Rep.John Thune (search) sparred over political ads and the increasingly negative tone of South Dakota's Senate race Sunday during a nationally televised debate.
On NBC's "Meet the Press," host Tim Russert asked Thune to respond to a recent fund-raising letter sent out by state GOP Chairman Randy Frederick that said Daschle's complaints about the administration have brought "comfort to America's enemies."
Thune, a Republican aiming to unseat Daschle in November, said he would not have chosen those words. But Thune said he has talked to soldiers who could never vote for Daschle after his prewar comments that President Bush (search) has failed miserably.
"What it does is emboldens our enemies and undermines the morale of our troops," Thune said.
Daschle called Thune's comments disappointing. "John's attacks on me, where I come from, would earn a trip to the woodshed," he said.
Republicans have long sought a strong challenger against Daschle, accused by the GOP of playing an unyielding obstructionist when it comes to Bush's agenda. White House aides as well as GOP Senate officials urged Thune to run. Republicans hold a 51-48 majority in the Senate, with one Democrat-leaning independent.
Despite being a Democrat in a Republican state, Daschle won his last race, in 1998, with 62 percent of the vote. Thune served in the House from 1997 to '03.
In Sunday's nearly hourlong debate, which was heated at times, Russert asked the candidates to clarify their positions on the Iraq (search) war.
Thune said the Bush administration knew the war was going to be a tough fight.
"We have to finish the job," he said. "This is not a time to cut and run. This is a time to show resolve."
Daschle said the real issue is how can we better establish an international coalition so the United States does not bear the brunt of casualties.
"If South Dakota were a country, we'd be the seventh largest coalition partner today," he said.
Daschle said even if other countries are unable or unwilling to send troops, they can provide engineers, law enforcement officers and security advisers. He said the Bush administration also needs to do a better job equipping its soldiers.
"One of the biggest concerns (soldiers) had was that they were being asked to do things without the proper equipment," said Daschle, citing a lack of body armor and global positioning system devices.
In response to that comment, Russert asked Daschle about presidential candidate John Kerry's (search) vote in the Senate against $87 billion in aid for the troops. Daschle said he disagreed with Kerry's vote.
Thune said Bush's Democratic critics haven't laid out specifics on what they would do differently. He said the administration does have support from Europe, but has to be out front for the war on terror.
"I think we have to understand that the United States is the leader on this," he said.
Both candidates were asked to defend campaign ads.
Russert played part of a Daschle ad that features footage of him hugging President Bush after the president had addressed the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Thune called the ad a manipulative effort by Daschle to attach himself to a popular president. "Tom is literally running out of the arms of Michael Moore (search), into the arms of the president in South Dakota," Thune said.
Daschle fired back, saying he supports Bush when he's right and opposes him when he's wrong.
"John's a follower, and I think there's something to be said for followers," he said. "And I think you have to be more than a follower in the United States Senate."
Russert played a brief clip of a Thune ad in which Thune said if he disagrees with the president, he'll tell him.
Russert asked why Thune didn't publicly disagree with Bush in 2002 on South Dakota drought relief. Thune said he did share his concerns with the president, but they were made in private conversations.