PRESHO, S.D. – After John Thune (search) walked into Hutch's Cafe to grab a cup of coffee and chat with supporters, he quickly asked how pheasant hunting is going this fall.
"Win or lose, I figure I'm going to get some hunting in after the election," the Republican Senate candidate said. "As soon as the campaign's over, I'm going to be out here."
Jean Brakke, who is retired, said she was pleased that Thune's campaign bus stopped briefly Monday in Presho, about 30 miles east on Interstate 90 from Thune's hometown of Murdo.
"He just kind of belongs to us. He's a common guy. He's a nice guy," she said.
Presho banker Steve Hayes said he has been friends with Thune since they were both in high school.
"The biggest thing about John is he can relate to anybody. He's just down to earth," Hayes said.
"Whether you meet him in Washington, D.C., or in Presho, South Dakota, he's the same John."
That's one of Thune's central messages in his battle to unseat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search). Thune says Daschle is out of touch with most South Dakotans, particularly on social issues like abortion, gay marriage and flag burning.
Daschle has used his leadership position to block President Bush's judicial nominees, making tax cuts permanent and cutting health care costs, Thune argues.
"We want to get rid of the gridlock, get rid of the partisanship, get rid of the political games and get going on moving this state and this country forward again," he told a crowd at a pancake supper in Fort Pierre.
Thune and his wife, Kimberly, started the day with a pancake breakfast in Beresford, then rode their campaign bus west for the visits to Presho and Fort Pierre.
Wearing khaki pants, a leather jacket and cowboy boots, Thune jumped off the bus in Presho to find only a few people in the cafe. But after he talked for a few minutes to the teenagers working there, people began showing up to shake hands and wish him well.
Later, as several hundred people lined up for pancakes in Fort Pierre, he reminded the crowd that when he was South Dakota's lone member of the U.S. House in 1997-2003, he was heavily outnumbered by the congressional delegations of more populous states. He said he believes he could make a difference in the Senate, where each state has two members.
Thune lost his first Senate bid by 524 votes two years ago, when he challenged Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. Republicans have to work harder than Democrats this year, he said.
"I believe this election, like the one two years ago, is going to be decided by a handful of votes. It's going to be a close election, so every single vote is going to matter," Thune told the Fort Pierre crowd.
He asked those eating pancakes to give his campaign the names of any voters still undecided in the race.
Thune talked one-on-one with many in the crowd. Some waited in line to talk and get his autograph. A few feet away, his wife also talked with supporters.
Meanwhile, children played with the little orange basketballs or small blue flying disks the campaign staff handed out.
Thune said he would use the campaign's final week to emphasize his belief that Daschle has lost touch with South Dakota and is not getting things done for the state.
He said he decided to run when Daschle failed a year ago to win passage of an energy bill that would have caused a huge increase in the use of ethanol, the fuel additive made from corn.
"It became clear to me he needed to be challenged because he wasn't listening to South Dakota any more. He was listening to Washington interests," Thune said.
"I think Daschle has been there too long. He's grown out of touch with the values of people in South Dakota," the Republican said.
Daschle has argued that he got the energy bill passed in the Senate, but senators then refused to support changes made by the House, which added a provision protecting makers of the former fuel additive MTBE from liability.
Polls show Thune and Daschle running neck-and-neck, and Thune said he was optimistic about his chances.
"It feels really good on the ground. We're getting good crowds, a lot of energy," he said. "I think it's going to come down to who gets the vote out."
On his campaign bus, Thune watched a Fox News Channel report on Senate races around the country. An analyst explained the South Dakota race is close.
Gene Steuven of Pierre said he took his family to the pancake feed because they like Thune's conservative values, particularly his opposition to abortion. Thune could help Bush, or he could help block Kerry's proposals if the Democrat wins the presidency, he said.
"I don't think anybody is going to do the wrong thing for South Dakota intentionally. But on some national things, John is going to be more to our way of thinking," Steuven said.
Thune also made a good impression on those too young to vote this year.
In the Presho cafe, 17-year-old Alicia Brakke said Thune was the first big-time politician she had met.
"I think it's good he's coming to small towns like Presho and making an effort to meet the people," she said. "He seems like a really nice guy."