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South Dakota Political Landscape Unsteady as Sen. Tim Johnson Recovers

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Sen. Tim JohnsonAP

South Dakota has seen some fiercely competitive congressional elections in recent years. As the next Senate campaign approaches, however, partisans on both sides are uncharacteristically quiet.

They are deferring — for now — to Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, who is recovering from a brain hemorrhage he suffered in December. He is not yet able to walk unassisted and is undergoing speech therapy, preparing for an eventual return to the Senate.

It is still unclear whether Johnson will seek his third term next year. He won re-election in 2002 by just 524 votes and was considered a likely target for the GOP before he fell ill.

Republicans, hoping to regain the Senate where Democrats have a very narrow majority, are now stuck playing the waiting game.

"From the Republican standpoint, of course, the longer Senator Johnson delays a final announcement of his decision whether to stand or not to stand handicaps ... the Republicans in fundraising," said Bill Richardson, political science professor at the University of South Dakota.

South Dakota Republican Party Chairman Karl Adam said the party is still energized and engaged in next year's election.

"I think it's just a matter of time and we'll have more definitive answers," he said.

Democrats aren't immune to the waiting game either.

The same day Johnson had the brain hemorrhage, a Democratic staffer registered the Web site hersethforsenate.com — apparently speculating that Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, South Dakota's Democratic congresswoman, might soon jump into the race to replace Johnson.

The staffer, Doug Landry, then worked for Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and now works for New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who heads the Democratic party's Senate campaign efforts. Both offices say Landry acted on his own and he has since apologized for his quick move.

Herseth Sandlin's office also denied any prior knowledge of the Web site — which is now useless, as Herseth married in March and changed her last name to Herseth Sandlin.

Johnson was rushed to the hospital Dec. 13 after becoming disoriented during a phone call with reporters. Hours later, he underwent emergency surgery and was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, a condition that causes arteries and veins to grow abnormally large, become tangled and sometimes burst.

Since then, he has steadily improved, moving from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility and then to his Fairfax, Va. home outside of Washington.

Johnson's office has not said when he would return to work in the Senate. Spokeswoman Julianne Fisher said Johnson is "very much anticipating running" for another term.

"He will work from here for a while and then make that decision," she said, referring to his congressional office.

Some South Dakotans are restless.

"Is he capable of representing us in the not-too-distant future? If so, he should extend us the courtesy of letting us know when we can expect him to start earning his salary," Randy E. Amundson wrote in a letter to the editor of the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls.

In an interview, Amundson said he has voted for Johnson in the past and no one asked him to write the letter.

Rick Hauffe, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said the party fully expects Johnson to run next year and dismissed such criticism as partisan baiting.

"I think those who attempt to float those kinds of nasty balloons are going to find them blowing up in their faces," he said.

Despite his indefinite absence from the Senate, Johnson is on track to run for re-election should he decide to do so. As Republicans wait, Johnson has raised more than $660,000 in the first three months of the year through fundraisers held by many of his Senate colleagues. And his campaign has recently hired two new employees, according to his office.

Adam said the GOP is discussing the race with several potential candidates but none have stepped forward yet. He did not shed any light on whether the party's best hope — Republican Gov. Mike Rounds — may take on Johnson.

"I know he's weighing his options, and I know he's got a very aggressive second term in office and South Dakotans looking to continue to fulfill that," Adam said.

By all accounts, Johnson's mental capacity has not suffered, but he is working on recovering his speech and movement on his right side. Doctors say his current therapy is aggressive.

He is now working from home, and his office has been renovated to make room for a scooter that the senator is expected to use when he returns.