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Inside Politics

Thune unseats Senate minority leader Daschle

In South Dakota, 51 percent for Thune to 49 percent for incumbent

John Thune, above, claimed victory over Tom Daschle in a hotly contested race.
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(CNN) -- Former GOP Rep. John Thune has defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle after portraying the incumbent as an obstructionist who was out of touch with South Dakota voters.

"Today the voters of South Dakota spoke and I am enormously grateful that they have given me the opportunity to serve as their next United States senator," Thune said in his victory speech early Wednesday.

Daschle is the first Senate party leader to lose his seat in 52 years. (South Dakota results)

Thune thanked Daschle for his "many contributions to public service and for a hard-fought campaign."

Daschle was expected to speak later in the day.

Thune told CNN's Wolf Blitzer he "had a very gracious conversation" with Daschle, who "offered his congratulations and his assistance."

"We're getting ready to move forward," Thune said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, said Wednesday that South Dakota strongly supports President Bush.

"Senator Daschle, in his position of being Democratic leader on the floor of the United States Senate, had as his goal to slow down, to obstruct, to stop that agenda," Frist told CNN's "American Morning." "South Dakotans, clearly believing in President Bush, wanted their representative to be someone more like President Bush, and clearly John Thune is just that."

With 100 percent of the state's precincts reporting, Thune garnered 197,814 votes, or 51 percent, compared with Daschle, who received 193,279 votes, or 49 percent.

Thune's victory, combined with the Democrats' loss of a seat in Georgia, give the Republicans a net gain of at least two seats. Two more -- Florida and Alaska -- are still too close to call, although the GOP candidates are leading.

If those trends hold, the new line-up in the Senate would be 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent -- Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords -- who tends to vote with Democrats. (Senate balance of power)

Thune, 43, has served three terms as South Dakota's lone congressman. He posed an immediate challenge to Daschle, who had won his past two elections with 62 percent and 65 percent of the vote.

Daschle, 55, was first elected to the Senate in 1986 after four terms in the House.

In 2002, Thune had come within 524 votes of unseating the state's other Democratic senator, Tim Johnson. When Thune entered the 2004 race, he immediately began questioning Daschle's leadership abilities, accusing him of blocking too many of Bush's judicial nominations, undermining the morale of U.S. troops and not doing enough for South Dakota.

"I am echoing what I hear people say in South Dakota about their senator and as they travel around the country having to deal with the chief obstructionist label. And I believe that is embarrassing to South Dakota," Thune told NBC's "Meet the Press" in September, while seated next to Daschle.

Thune then blasted his rival for criticizing the war on Iraq, saying, "His words embolden the enemy."

An outraged Daschle responded by saying Thune's attacks "where I come from would earn a trip to the woodshed."

"I take this personally. It's not only an attack on me, it's an attack on where I'm from," said Daschle, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.

Thune's campaign manager has also accused Daschle of giving up his status as a South Dakota resident in order to apply for a Homestead exemption in Washington.

According to The New York Times, Daschle rejected the charge saying his tax records were changed to reflect the signature of his wife, a Washington lobbyist.

The accusation did not sit well with South Dakota residents, CNN political analyst Jeff Greenfield explained.

"It means you've 'gone Washington,'" he said. "Politicians are not supposed to not live in the home where they are.

"The people back home think they've lost touch."

Daschle's campaign also raised eyebrows when it ran an advertisement of President Bush and the senator embracing in Congress in the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Thune said the ad was a cheap effort by Daschle to build off the popular image of Bush in South Dakota, which is heavily Republican.

"The remarkable thing about it is how quickly he was willing to throw [Democratic presidential nominee Sen.] John Kerry overboard in order to help himself in South Dakota," Thune said in response to the ad. "For years, Tom Daschle has been telling us one thing here in South Dakota and then doing the opposite in Washington."

Daschle defended the ad, saying it showed his ability to work on a bipartisan basis. At the same time, Daschle said he would make it clear when he opposes administration policy.

"You can't just rubber stamp what this administration is doing and that's exactly what John would like to do," he said during the NBC interview. "South Dakota expects more than that."

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