South Dakota's Debate: A Democrat Against Reid, a Republican Reminding Everyone He's Republican

South Dakota's once-sleepy Senate race crackles with unexpected partisanship.

It's the worst kept secret in Senate politics. It's hardly a secret at all. Rick Weiland, the former Tom Daschle aide running for South Dakota's open seat, was not Harry Reid's choice. Reid went out of his way to dismiss Weiland; the DSCC did not even put money into South Dakota until this month.

As he told me when I was covering his race, Weiland's come to appreciate the diss. At tonight's televised debate, Weiland told voters that he would vote against Harry Reid for majority leader, and that both Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell had failed miserably.

"They should both step aside," said Weiland, who challenged Republican candidate Mike Rounds to agree with him.

Rounds, the state's two-term Republican governor, met Weiland halfway. Neither of them would back Reid, he promised, but only he, Rounds, would oppose Barack Obama. "The president's policies are on the ballot," said Rounds, quoting the president's October 2 speech at Northwestern University with the GOP-approved judiciousness. Rounds cheerfully relied on that quote several times, and deflected attacks from conservative insurgent Gordon Howie -- by far, the most aggressive of his challengers -- over the EB-5 visa scandal that had thrown away the Republican's early lead.

"Like any federal project, it can be made better," said Rounds of EB-5. "Over 5000 jobs have been created."

"It's a scandal that stinks more every day," said Howie.

"It has led to a culture of corruption," said Weiland. "I know Mike likes to beat on the bureaucrats but there hasn’t been enough oversight of the program."

The debate, hosted by South Dakota Public Radio, did not veer into any of the news cycle-driven stumpers that have marked higher-profile races. There were, for example, no questions about the Ebola outbreaks in Africa and the fresh panics in two American cities. Instead, there were policy questions that allowed Weiland to hit on his themes of "repealing Citizens United" and raising the cap on Social Security taxes to eland the benefit system and extend its solvency. "He's talking about a $100 billion per year tax increase on the American public," said Rounds.

When the Democrat and Republican grappled, the South Dakota contest sounded like an actual race. The debate only lost focus when former Sen. Larry Pressler took his turns at the mic. Pressler, a Republican who voted twice for Barack Obama and is now running as an independent, stayed close to the centrist bullet points he's been issuing ever since Rounds got into trouble and voters started hunting for an alternative. Pressler meandered from his argument that he would return to the Senate with 18 years of seniority and a friendship with Barack Obama to in absentia debunkings of the Republicans who didn't believe he donated to Mitt Romney. "I am like the Biblical David," said Pressler, "and I have at least two Goliaths coming after me." He quickly added the Super PACs now in the race to the gathering of his enemies. "Twelve Goliaths." Not to worry: He was "armed with a slingshot of idealism."

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