RAPID CITY, S.D. – Shattering precedent, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) campaigned for the defeat of his Democratic counterpart on Saturday, depicting Sen. Tom Daschle (search) as a polarizing figure at home and an obstructionist thwarting President Bush's agenda in Congress.
Former GOP Rep. John Thune (search) "would be a perfect United States senator to serve the people of South Dakota," said Frist, standing next to Daschle's rival. Blending local concerns with national issues, he pledged to work with Thune to find a new mission for a nearby Air Force base threatened with closure.
Cross-country campaigning is common for prominent and ambitious politicians such as Frist, a Tennessean whose current tour will take him to six states in hopes of enlarging the GOP majority this fall.
But when he arrived in South Dakota — the leader of one party trying to deny the leader of the other a new term — he made this trip unlike any other.
"We haven't found anything in our files" that is comparable, said Don Ritchie of the Senate historian's office. The only thing close occurred a century ago, he said, when the leader of one wing of the Republican party campaigned to defeat the leader of the other.
One Democrat took exception to Frist's politicking.
"What has become of civility? ... It used to be unheard of for Senate leaders to seek an active role against each other in campaigns," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd (search) of West Virginia, who has served for more than 45 years and led his party for a dozen of them. "That time has gone," he lamented.
"It may be rare but these are rare times," Frist countered at a news conference after his visit to Ellsworth Air Force Base.
In a reference to polls showing a competitive race between Daschle and Thune, the senator added, "It is rare to have the leader of a party ... not be very strongly supported by the people in their home state."
Anticipating continued GOP control of the Senate after this year's elections, as well as a second term for Bush, Frist said South Dakota voters can choose a candidate who believes in the president and his leadership, or stick with a senator who has been "obstructing in the United States Senate," everything from energy legislation to welfare.
Daschle is seeking a fourth terms in his Republican state. Thune served six years in the House before giving up his seat for an unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2002. Bush is expected to win the state comfortably against John Kerry (search), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
There are national political imperatives involved in an era when control of the Senate has flipped back and forth several times in recent years. This year, Democrats are mounting a stronger than expected challenge to pick up the two seats needed to prevail.
Aside from the obvious appeal of forcing the leader of the Senate Democrats to defend his seat, Republicans also look to South Dakota to help turn back the Democratic threat nationally.
"One vote matters. Policy matters. Elections matter," said Frist.
In public, Daschle has not betrayed a hint of resentment at the GOP leader's decision to campaign against him. "He's welcome, and I only hope he will make it a substantial as well as political trip," Daschle told reporters when word of the trip surfaced.
Both senators are at pains to say they continue to work closely together. They hope to travel to Iraq some time, for example, in a display of bipartisan support for the troops. An earlier trip was scrapped because of security concerns.
But several Senate aides in both parties, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Daschle has made his displeasure known at the GOP leader's efforts on Thune's behalf.
He approached Frist on the Senate floor, confronting him with a letter the GOP leader signed to be mailed out with one of Thune's fund-raising appeals. "If you only can make one more contribution to one of our Republican Senate candidates this election cycle ... you should make that gift to John Thune," it said.
Daschle also moved aggressively to try to blunt the impact of Frist's trip.
He sought credit for the Republicans' tour of the Air Force base — a visit that Thune's aides say he requested. South Dakotan politicians of both parties want to protect the facility in the next round of base closings.
On an issue of concern to the state's ranchers, Daschle said that despite an appeal from Thune last January, Frist opposes mandatory labeling of meat to show its country of origin.
Asked whether he and Frist agree on the issue, Thune avoided a direct answer. Instead, he said, they had discussed it as "part of an ongoing effort to educate ... the leadership."
Two years ago, Thune was recruited by the White House and Frist, then chairman of the GOP Senate campaign committee, to run against Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson.
It was a proxy political war of sorts. Bush and the Republicans hoped to wound Daschle by winning the state's other Senate seat. Johnson said his vote was needed in Washington to prevent Daschle from losing his powerful post as majority leader.
Johnson won by 524 votes; Republicans won control of the Senate, relegating Daschle to minority leader.
This time, Thune's strategy is to turn the Democratic claim of two years ago on its head.
"Senator Daschle is no longer the majority leader of the United States Senate. He is no longer the leader of the party in control of the Senate," said Frist.