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ROSS: Could Rounds be in trouble?

The presumed frontrunner status that former Gov. Mike Rounds has enjoyed in his Senate bid so far is showing signs of cracking, at least to this outside observer.

He has launched a set of TV ads ahead of the June 3 primary that should be his for the taking. He has enough money to easily afford the ads, sure, but I've seen several versions of his message, Rounds looking into the camera and talking to voters about the positive highlights of his eight years as governor.

The multiple versions make me think his campaign might have focus-grouped various messages and these ads might very well be meant to move votes whereas a single ad could be run if a candidate were putting forth the minimum show required to avoid insulting the electorate.

Perhaps more telling, though, was Rounds' debate performance Saturday in Pierre.

First, the fact that Rounds showed up at all to a debate defied predictions of some operatives seasoned with decades on the campaign trail. One such guru assured me that Mike Rounds would certainly not be debating his four Republican opponents, each and every one a long-shot. As a group the opposing candidates would dilute any anti-Rounds votes so much as to be meaningless. Rounds would only risk a gaffe by debating them. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway.

Enter Stace Nelson, the irrepressible state lawmaker who shook up the Republican legislative cartel so much as to get himself thrown out of the GOP's daily close-door caucus meetings. The retired Marine wears that as a badge of honor and is bringing his tireless pursuit of principle and purity to the 2014 Republican Senate primary.

Nelson made no accommodation for polite discourse as he lit into what he sees as Rounds' political and policy sins, chief among them the pursuit of out-of-state campaign contributions and the EB-5 economic development program that connects wealthy foreigners with American visas after relieving them of $500,000 used for investment in American business ventures.

"My opponent has bragged he's going to get $9 million from outside South Dakota to effectively buy this election," Nelson told the debate crowd while sitting right next to Rounds.

This prompted Rounds to directly attack Nelson, a move uncharacteristic of him during his time as governor and a potential violation of the unwritten rule that a candidate far ahead in the polls ignores the other candidates.

"Stace, you're the only guy I know who got kicked out of Republican caucus for misbehavior. While I stand with Republicans, you stand side-by-side with a pro-Obama Democrat to bash Republicans. That guy wants to raise taxes, he wants background checks on folks who own firearms, he wants Obamacare on steroids. And he's opposed to the Keystone pipeline," Rounds said, referring to a recent joint press conference held by Nelson and Democratic Senate candidate Rick Weiland.

Perhaps, as another candidate speculated afterward, Rounds had "just had a belly full" of Nelson's scolding. Perhaps. But another presence at Saturday's debate has me thinking the direct attack was planned, and there's more to come.

Dick Wadhams can be remembered as the guide who shepherded John Thune to a seemingly impossible victory over Tom Daschle in 2004, serving as Yoda to Thune's Luke Skywalker. A decade later, Wadhams is working for Mike Rounds.

I covered that 2004 race and am confident very little, if anything, from the Thune camp was unscripted or unprepared for, even an infamous barnyard expletive uttered by Wadhams to a Daschle campaign aide. I learned years later that utterance was meant to distract the press from another issue, and it worked.

All of which is to say Rounds' retort to Nelson Saturday surely was planned and rehearsed during debate prep with Wadhams.

All of this could be a pre-emptive effort to preserve Rounds' lead as the campaign turns into a head-wind of ongoing EB-5 controversy and other criticism of Rounds' governorship. Or it could mean Nelson is nipping at Rounds' heels. Or it could mean that Democrat Weiland's tour of South Dakota's 300-plus towns is bearing fruit. Only Rounds, Wadhams and handful of trusted aides know for sure.

I will still be surprised if Mike Rounds is not the winner on June 3, but as he himself can tell you after his Cinderella win in 2002, frontrunners can stumble.