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Rhoden enters fray for US Senate seat

State Sen. Larry Rhoden speaks to The Daily Republic Wednesday afternoon about his plans to challenge former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. (Jordan Steffen/Republic)

State Sen. Larry Rhoden says he isn't afraid to be the underdog.

Rhoden, a Republican, plans to challenge former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, who isn't seeking re-election. Rhoden's candidacy was widely reported Tuesday, but the 54-year-old rancher and state legislator from Union Center, east of Sturgis, made it official on Wednesday at events in Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

"I don't shy away from it -- I am the underdog in this race," he said Wednesday in an interview with The Daily Republic.

Rhoden is quick to admit he lacks the name recognition of Rounds, who declared his own candidacy last year, but said he plans to run his own race regardless of who else is in it.

"In South Dakota, it's kind of in our nature to root for the underdog," he said. "It's full steam ahead for me."

Rhoden has been a state legislator since 2001, starting in the House, where he was majority leader for four years. He was elected to the Senate in 2008, where he is now majority whip.

Rhoden said his experience in the Legislature has given him the character traits to be a strong leader and has made him great at identifying problems and finding solutions. Rhoden said he was successful in bringing people together and working across the aisle during his time in the Legislature.

"That's what it's going to take in D.C. to make some kind of meaningful change," he said.

The national debt, which is currently about $16.7 trillion, is a key issue, Rhoden said, that Congress needs to deal with as soon as possible. Rhoden isn't happy with the current Congress and its apparent inability to act on the national debt, he said.

"There doesn't seem to be any real will to try to stem that tide," he said.

Rhoden is also concerned about Obamacare, which he said will be a "bureaucratic disaster," and the impact it could have on Medicare.

To spread awareness of his campaign, Rhoden said he will likely have to spend much of his time East River, where he is lesser known, but where a large majority of the state's population lives.

"I'm planning on spending a lot of time east of the river," he said, "meeting people, driving from town to town."

At this point, Rhoden said he will stop short of comparing himself to Rounds and will instead continue to define himself for voters.

"Getting in this race is not about Mike Rounds," he said. "It's about what I can do and provide for the state of South Dakota."

Rhoden may be willing to butt heads with Rounds in the future should the situation call for it, he said.

"It's certainly a possibility that Mike Rounds will bring the fight to me," he said. "I'm certainly comfortable identifying my strengths compared to Mike Rounds when that time comes."

Rounds' campaign manager, Rob Skjonsberg, said Wednesday in an email reply to The Daily Republic that the Rounds campaign has always expected a primary.

"We've said from the beginning that we'd be prepared to take on all comers," Skjonsberg said.

Still, Skjonsberg said, Rounds considers Rhoden a friend based on the time the two spent working together in state government.

"They worked together on many important issues and we often counted on his support," Skjonsberg said. "Larry is a good man and we expect to still be friends once the primary is over."

Rhoden reciprocated Wednesday, when he said he also considers Rounds a friend and the two had a good working relationship when Rhoden was in the Legislature.

Rhoden spent a year thinking it over before finally deciding to make a run for U.S. Senate. He said a group of his friends approached him in July 2012 and asked him to consider running.

"There is always trepidation about what a U.S. Senate race entails," he said. "I had a lot of concerns about that."

After discussing it with his family, Rhoden said he decided to run because he felt the times were as troubling in the U.S. as any during his lifetime.

"I would feel pretty cowardly to not get in the race and try to make a difference," he said.

Though Rhoden is the only Republican to challenge Rounds so far, others have publicly stated they are considering entering the race, including State Rep. Stace Nelson, RFulton, and Sioux Falls physician Annette Bosworth, a Plankinton native.

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