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2-year-old stars as Herseth Sandlin hits the pavement

Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin talks with Susan Cameron, manager of Merle Norman Cosmetics, Thursday afternoon in Huron. (Chris Huber/Republic)

HURON -- South Dakota's lone congresswoman, locked in a tight political battle, walks into a downtown jewelry store to shake some hands and seek some votes.

The veteran Democratic politician is carrying a secret weapon with her: Zachary, her 2-year-old son.

While voters of both parties were glad to meet Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, 39, and talk about the campaign with her, Zachary was clearly the star of the show.

"You've got your beautiful boy," said Sue Christen, who co-owns Smith Jewelry with her husband, Les.

Zachary looks around, clearly fascinated by all the glittering objects in the store.

"We've got to be careful," his mother cautions. "We've got to be careful in here."

While the tyke was interested in walking through the store, he didn't cause any damage while Herseth Sandlin shook hands with Christen and Ashlee Beilke, a salesperson, and asked for their votes.

Christen said Herseth Sandlin had her vote before she came to the store.

"Absolutely," she said. "She's middle-of-the-road. I support everything she does."

Not every voter Herseth Sandlin spoke with Thursday in Huron planned to vote for her. Some said they were undecided, while others said they support her Republican opponent, state Rep. Kristi Noem, of Castlewood.

Herseth Sandlin said she rarely is given the cold shoulder from people on the other side of the political fence.

"Everybody, by and large, is very polite," she said. "This is South Dakota."

She said she can sense when someone is opposed to her and doesn't seek a confrontation. It's easier to move on.

While Herseth Sandlin campaigned, two staffers kept an eye on the time and her schedule.

Jon Loevner and Eric Bursch work for her congressional office but are on vacation from those jobs and are volunteering for the campaign, they said.

Herseth Sandlin's husband, Max Sandlin, was also along for the day. The former four-term Texas congressman shook hands and chatted about cars and hunting with voters, journalists and anyone who came near him.

Running for office is a joy that lightens the load of working in government, Sandlin said. He said his wife is a skilled campaigner.

"It's fun," Sandlin said of hustling for votes. "Stephanie balances the heart and the head really well.

"She has a true love for people," he said. "And that's what makes her a good politician."

Zachary may have inherited some of those political skills. His great-grandfather, Ralph, was governor from 1959 to 1960 and his great-grandmother, Lorna, served as secretary of state.

His grandfather, and Herseth Sandlin's father, Lars, was a longtime legislator who ran for governor in 1986. He is also campaigning for his daughter this fall as three generations of the family seek votes.

Herseth Sandlin enjoys talking about her family political history and said she has always enjoyed campaigning.

This week, she recalled stopping in an Elks Club in Vermillion during her first campaign, a losing bid for Congress in 2002.

Herseth Sandlin said when she walked into the room it went completely silent. She wasn't sure what was wrong until she realized the people were all wondering who she was and why she was there.

She smiled as she recalled working the room, shaking hands and asking for votes.

On Thursday, she was doing it again, flashing a broad smile and asking people how business was.

She also made sure to ask people for their support.

Annette Snodgrass, of Miller, was shopping at the jewelry store when she looked around at all the commotion. Quickly realizing who the tall, slender woman was next to her, Snodgrass shook hands with the congresswoman.

"I'd appreciate your vote," Herseth Sandlin said.

Then she was off, her son in her arms, a pair of staffers and two journalists trailing behind her.

Susan Cameron, manager of the Merle Norman Cosmetics store, was surprised to see the entourage troop into her shop.

Soon she and Herseth Sandlin were huddled together, talking politics, business and little boys. Once again, the tot was in the spotlight.

"Zachary is a good campaigner," Herseth Sandlin said with a smile.

Meanwhile, he toddled through the store and went behind a curtain to see what was in a back room. Herseth Sandlin interrupted her campaigning to fetch her son.

"My mom says it's payback," she said with a wry shake of her head.

Cameron said she enjoyed the new campaign commercial that debuted Wednesday. She asked Herseth Sandlin how the race was going.

"Good," she replied. "We're holding our own."

Max Sandlin still hadn't caught up. His watch had stopped working and he was buying a new one from Christen.

When he joined the group at Manolis Grocery, he proudly showed off the new silver timepiece on his wrist.

Herseth Sandlin was chatting with Peter and Gus Marcus and then walked over to shake hands with Todd Manoli. She spoke with some of the customers, and others just stared at the sight of a congresswoman seeking votes while they waited for their sandwich to be made.

Manoli said he supports the Democratic congresswoman in her bid for a fifth full term.

"Absolutely," he said. "Absolutely."

Her luck wasn't as good at the next stop, where she chatted with Marae Schnabel, of Huron, and Renee Aughenbaugh, of De Smet, as they were getting their hair done at Trendz Day Spa.

Both women smiled and talked with her but when asked later, they said they were undecided. Meeting Herseth Sandlin wouldn't influence their vote, they said.

Jessie Schley, of Alpena, who owns the business, greeted Herseth Sandlin when she came in but quickly went back to work on a customer's hair.

Schley said the campaign stop wouldn't influence her vote on Election Day. "No," she said before returning to work.

Don Hofer, of Miller, was waiting at a table in the downtown mall when Herseth Sandlin, Max Sandlin and Zachary appeared.

Hofer chatted with the congresswoman and her husband for a while and talked cars with Sandlin.

"I'm a car nut," Sandlin said. "I love cars."

"You know, I just saw her on TV," Hofer said after Herseth Sandlin and her family departed.

But he said he supports Noem.

"I'm not a straight ticket voter," he said. "I go by the person."

Herseth Sandlin said she enjoyed her hour in downtown Huron. She had been in De Smet earlier, trying to convince some undecided voters, and was headed to Aberdeen in the afternoon with several stops planned along the way.

Most people she chatted with in Huron wished her well, and she said she feels the tide is turning in her favor. Polls throughout the campaign have showed a tight race, with each candidate having slim leads at various times.

Negative attacks launched by Noem have turned voters off, Herseth Sandlin said. The final campaign debate on KELO-TV Wednesday night crackled with tension, she admitted, and it was good to have that behind her.

"I was taken aback," she said.

But the congresswoman said she's looking forward to the closing days of the race and optimistic she will hear good news.

"It's going to be an exciting Election Night," Herseth Sandlin said.