John Thune, the Republican trying to unseat Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), said yesterday that Daschle's criticisms of the war in Iraq have emboldened the enemy, a charge the senator sharply rejected.

Thune's comment "would earn [him] a trip to the woodshed" in the South Dakota of Daschle's childhood, the senator said. "His effort to demonize me won't work."

The exchange was among the sharpest in a generally polite but fast-paced 50-minute face-off on NBC's "Meet the Press." Thune, a former U.S. House member who narrowly lost the 2002 Senate race to Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), is locked in a tight battle with Daschle in perhaps the nation's most closely watched Senate race.

Questioned by moderator Tim Russert as they sat almost elbow-to-elbow in NBC's Washington studio, the nominees spent much of the forum on familiar topics such as drought aid and ethanol subsidies. Near the end, Russert noted that South Dakota's GOP chairman recently wrote: "Daschle's three years as complainer-in-chief have brought shame to the honor of his office, concern to our men and women in uniform, and comfort to America's enemies."

Thune neither defended nor repudiated the remark. But he said U.S. troops were disturbed by Daschle's criticisms of the Bush administration's Iraq policies shortly before the 2003 invasion. "What it does is emboldens our enemies and undermines the morale of our troops," Thune said.

Interrupted by Russert, who called the statement "a very serious charge," Thune repeated, "His words embolden the enemy."

Daschle called the remarks "very disappointing." "It's not only an attack on me," he said, "it's an attack on where I'm from. I got my values from my mother and dad" in South Dakota.

In March 2003, just before U.S. troops entered Iraq, Daschle told a Washington audience that "this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war." The senator said yesterday, "I could have found a different time to say it, but you know what? I'm the [only] veteran" in the race. He said he did not regret his 2002 vote authorizing the war, nor a later vote to appropriate an additional $87 billion for the effort.

Russert displayed a Daschle TV campaign ad that shows the senator embracing President Bush on the day Bush addressed Congress shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Thune called the ad "a very cynical and manipulative effort on Tom's part to connect himself to a popular president." In Washington, Thune said, "he's attacking the president, you know, blocking the president's agenda. And in South Dakota [TV ads], he's hugging the president."

Daschle said the ad simply shows that politicians can unite in times of crisis. Daschle said he is willing to oppose Bush when he thinks the president is not sending enough drought aid or highway funding to South Dakota or when he nominates judges who are too rigidly conservative.

Thune hammered at Daschle for leading Democratic efforts to block confirmation votes on 10 nominees to federal appellate courts. "You're not following the Constitution," he said.

Daschle said the Senate has confirmed 201 Bush nominees, more than were confirmed during George H.W. Bush's presidency or the first term of Ronald Reagan. "John would suggest that maybe we just rubber-stamp them all, but the Constitution requires us to advise and consent," Daschle said.

Thune said all the nominees deserved an up-or-down vote rather than having filibuster rules used to prevent such votes. Elsewhere in the program Thune said, "I don't think anybody expects Tom to be a rubber stamp for President Bush. But it would be nice once in a while if he were a rubber stamp for South Dakota."

The candidates are scheduled to hold two televised debates next month in South Dakota. Recent polls suggest a tight race, with some giving a slight lead to Thune, and others showing Daschle slightly ahead.

Of Republican opponent John Thune's comments, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, right, said, "His effort to demonize me won't work."