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Early start by Rounds puts other hopefuls behind

bPIERRE -- Early absentee voting began Friday in South Dakota's party primary elections. Is victory inevitable for Mike Rounds in the contest for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination?

With five candidates -- Stace Nelson, Larry Rhoden, Annette Bosworth and Jason Ravnsborg are the others -- the race is the most developed of the three statewide primaries that will be decided June 3.

Rounds has been running the longest. He made his candidacy official Nov. 29, 2012. The Democratic incumbent, Tim Johnson, didn't announce until March 26, 2013, that he wouldn't seek re-election to a fourth term.

Bosworth officially registered as a candidate on July 24, 2013. Rhoden was next on July 30. Nelson followed on Aug. 22. Ravnsborg got in last on Jan. 15, 2014.

Now only six weeks remain before primary election day. The candidates' first-quarter 2014 reports on their campaign finances are still rolling in. But their filings through Dec. 31, 2013, put Rounds far ahead in legislators backing his campaign.

Eighteen current members of the Legislature and 30 past members made reportable donations to Rounds through the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, Rhoden showed five current and five past. Nelson had two current and three past. Bosworth had one past.

Former state Rep. Matt McCaulley of Sioux Falls contributed $500 to Rounds on July 24 and $500 to Rhoden on Sept. 20.

He is a lawyer and became a lobbyist after he left the Legislature in May 2004.

"In a small state like South Dakota, primaries are difficult as you often have friends seeking the same seat," McCaulley said. "I've supported both Larry Rhoden and Mike Rounds for over a decade, and I am supporting them in their 2014 races as well."

At the same time, many Republican legislators haven't become involved in this primary fight.

Notably silent are blocs of lawmakers such as those from the emerging wing of Republicans that fought to repeal the Common Core school standards.

The new standards that took effect in public schools this academic year were adopted by the state Board of Education during Rounds' last year as governor.

Rounds served as South Dakota's governor from 2003 through 2010, after eight years in the state Senate from 1993 through 2000.

Rounds deliberately became the first candidate to be South Dakota's next U.S. senator. Thirteen years ago, he changed his mind several times about whether to run for governor.

One reason he delayed entering the 2002 race was the possibility then-U.S. Rep. John Thune would seek the governor's seat.

Rounds, who was term-limited out of the state Senate, deferred to the three-term congressman.

Thune eventually chose to challenge Johnson for the Senate seat. Johnson won by 524 votes.

This time, Rounds didn't wait. He was the biggest name available in the Republican ranks. None of the other Republicans who declared their candidacies for the Senate after Rounds can match his political resume.

Rhoden, with 14 years in the Legislature, comes closest. Nelson is next with four years as a legislator.

Rounds also carries a large advantage in fundraising. He set a goal of $9 million. Through March 31, he raised more than $2.9 million.

Bosworth was next at more than $1.1 million. However, much of her out-of-state money has been kept by the professional service that raised it.

Rhoden has brought in about $116,000 and Nelson about $103,000. Ravsnborg received just over $3,100.

Of course, upsets happen. That was how Rounds gained statewide office.

He won the Republican nomination for governor in 2002 by finishing far ahead of two better-financed and better-known opponents.

Seen as the early favorites, state Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby spent much of their resources fighting each other, including on TV attack advertising.

Rounds instead focused on spreading a positive message about himself, his family and making South Dakota "even better."

He worked at the grassroots making personal appearances, installing simple 4-by-8 painted signs in people's rural front-yards and pastures and running low-cost weekly newspaper ads.

This time, Rounds is the man with the money, the staff and the record. He is the most frequent target as opponents scrutinize his time as governor. And this time, it's Nelson with the signs in the pastures.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who was lieutenant governor in Rounds' administration, endorsed Rounds for the Senate nomination.

But Daugaard has also needed to address difficult situations left from Rounds' time in office.

In his first year as governor, Daugaard led the Legislature to make 10 percent cuts in most of state government's budgets. Daugaard also reduced salaries for the Cabinet.

Daugaard tried and failed to come up with a replacement for a major business tax break that Rounds championed and legislators eventually repealed when they learned how much it cost.

The latest trouble is the EB-5 immigrant investor program that mushroomed during the Rounds administration and Daugaard shut down in September.

Of the other four candidates, Rhoden is the only one who was in state office while Rounds was governor.

Rhoden entered the state House of Representatives in 2001, the session after Rounds finished his time in the Senate. Rhoden immediately went up the House ranks, serving as Republican assistant leader for the 2003-2004 term and then the next two terms as House Republican leader.

Term-limited in the House, Rhoden moved to the Senate in 2009. He was in the Legislature every year that Rounds was governor.

When he decided to run for U.S. Senate eight months after Rounds announced, it was clear in Republican circles that Rhoden wanted to present an alternative.

Former state Rep. Bill Peterson of Sioux Falls is quietly backing Rhoden. Sue Peterson, his wife, is the treasurer for Rhoden's campaign committee.

The Petersons became good friends with Rhoden and his wife, Sandy, when the two men served together in the House.

"He had my back a number of times when I was majority leader and he was assistant majority leader and I have never forgotten that loyalty," Peterson said. "Friendship means a lot to me -- us -- and we stand by our friends. When he called to ask for our support, there was no question we would give it to him."

Peterson said he isn't outspoken for Rhoden's candidacy and won't be visible or active in any campaign because he is employed by South Dakota Lutheran Social Services.

For many legislators past and current there are divided loyalties in the Republican primary, according to Peterson.

Of 81 current Republican legislators, only 23 gave reportable amounts to one of the Senate candidates.

"If Larry were not in the race, I would be voting for Mike Rounds. I think personal friendship and loyalty play a big role for those legislators who have chosen sides," Peterson said.

"I have not found any animosity towards Mike Rounds from those supporting Larry and vice versa. That may not be true with the other candidates' supporters, however.

"I also think a lot of legislators just want to be on the fence and not offend anyone, and," he added, "I really don't fault them for that."