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In South Dakota, Democrats' own 'mama grizzly' vs. 'the next Sarah Palin'

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, South Dakota's lone House member, is the Democratic Party's own mama grizzly, straight out of the heartland. She's been elected to three full terms but faces her most serious threat yet, state Rep. Kristi Noem, soft-spoken but tough and an unabashed conservative.

"Is there a definition for a mama grizzly?" Noem asked, laughing, as she sat at the old table in her farmhouse kitchen. The kids stormed in and out for dinner, fetching breadsticks and spoonfuls of pasta. Grandma stood at the counter readying the strawberry pie.

"People are constantly trying to find a label for you, and in my life there's never really been a label for me," Noem continued. "I've just been in business, farming and ranching, and served in the legislature. In this race, especially, people are going to try to put you in a box and try to define you, and I've been pretty firm in making sure I'm the only one who does that."

The "Battle of the Babes," as some political watchers in the state are calling it, will decide more than just who holds South Dakota's at-large House seat. It is a test of whether Republicans, in their bid to recapture the House, can win in the 48 congressional districts, including this one, that are represented by Democrats but whose voters went for John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. It also is a test of whether moderate Democrats, like Herseth Sandlin, who often vote against their party on controversial issues, can survive in an unusually tumultuous year. Recent public polling showed Noem with a small lead.

More at stake

For Herseth Sandlin and Noem, there's more at stake. South Dakota political strategists say the winner will become the overwhelming favorite to eventually succeed Sen. Tim Johnson (D), whose term ends in 2014. Johnson was recently hospitalized for gall bladder surgery, but his spokeswoman, Julianne Fisher, said he is in good health and has no plans to retire.

But more than anything, this campaign, playing out across the small cities and prairie towns that dot South Dakota's vast terrain, is a window into the heartland values of fiscal responsibility and government restraint that promise to shape outcomes this fall as well as in Obama's 2012 reelection bid.

"Kristi and Stephanie are two moms having a debate over how to balance America's household budget," said GOP strategist Paul Erickson, a South Dakota native who returned home to watch the two debate. "South Dakota voters seem to perfectly embody the prevailing fiscal mood of the country. They look at Obama's spending the same way they'd look at a 10-year-old at the county fair who's had five corn dogs and three cotton candies: shaking their heads and muttering, 'Too much!' "

Of this, Herseth Sandlin is keenly aware. She touts her fiscal conservatism at every opportunity. In the debate, she said she voted against "hundreds of billions of dollars of spending." Nowhere in her campaign literature does it say she is a Democrat. And unlike her opponent, Herseth Sandlin said, she does not parrot her national party's talking points.

"We have one voice in the House of Representatives for South Dakota, and that person needs to stand up when a national political agenda isn't good for South Dakota, and that person needs to work together when a particular agenda presents opportunities for South Dakota," Herseth Sandlin said, noting that she stood up to Obama and Pelosi on health care and bank bailouts but voted with them on the economic stimulus because she believed it would save jobs and provide a lifeline to the state's wind-energy industry. "I've done what's right for South Dakota."

Rozanne Winger, 67, a retired nurse practitioner from Sioux Falls, buys it. "There could be no question about her not being a rubber stamp," she said. "The argument that she supports Nancy Pelosi is totally bogus."

Regardless, Noem and more than a few South Dakota voters see Herseth Sandlin as enabling a progressive agenda that is unpopular in this state of about 800,000 people.

"The whole philosophy behind what they have promoted . . . has been completely out of step with South Dakota," Noem said at her home, Racotah Ranch, in tiny Castlewood, about 100 miles north of Sioux Falls. "South Dakotans identify with having the freedom to make choices for themselves, believing in competition and being able to run their small businesses the way that they see fit, not being forced with dealing with government mandates all the time."

Noem's message is resonating with some voters. "We need a strong conservative voice in D.C.," said Dee Van Deest, 67, a retired secretary from Sioux Falls. "Kristi represents our values. She's the real deal. She's the mama grizzly that we hope for."

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