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MERCER: Would a stand-in be better than a no-show candidate?

PIERRE — Here are some things to keep in mind as fall arrives in South Dakota.

Absentee voting opens Sept. 21 for the Nov. 6 general elections. And U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, the Republican candidate for governor, has limited her participation in televised debates to two, both in late October.

Those facts make the hill steeper for the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Billie Sutton. Then there's voter registration.

The Aug. 1 numbers showed Republicans at 252,215, then Democrats at 156,353 and independents 122,549. (There also were about 3,000 registered as Libertarian, Constitution or other parties.)

The 1974 election was the most recent time South Dakota voters elected a Democrat for governor. He was incumbent Dick Kneip.

Democrats had drawn even in voter registration for a few elections in the 1970s. They've been in decline since.

Experience in statewide elections is another difference this cycle.

Sutton is running statewide for the first time. Noem has won six times statewide and hasn't lost.

Her first win was a 42 percent plurality in the 2010 Republican primary for the U.S. House seat, over then-Secretary of State Chris Nelson and legislator Blake Curd.

That November she went on to defeat the Democratic incumbent, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, 48.1 percent to 45.9 percent, in a three-way contest.

Noem's most serious test since then came in June for the Republican nomination for governor.

She rolled past state Attorney General Marty Jackley, 56 percent to 44 percent.

The Sutton and Noem campaigns differ too on debates and forums.

Sutton participated in an Aug. 22 forum for governor candidates at Dakotafest at Mitchell. Noem went Aug. 21 and sidestepped the forum.

That's also when the two candidates issued dueling news releases about their plans.

Noem issued a statement committing to a KELO TV debate Oct. 23 and a South Dakota Public Broadcasting TV debate Oct. 25.

Sutton released a list of 10 debates and forums where he committed to participate.

But because Noem wouldn't appear, organizations scrapped at least three. One was a KSFY TV debate Sunday at the State Fair.

What neither side discussed was the use of stand-ins. Both candidates have running mates: state Rep. Larry Rhoden for Noem and Michelle Lavallee for Sutton.

There have been occasions in South Dakota's past where another high-profile office-holder campaigned instead of the candidate.

It happened this spring in a Democratic U.S. House primary in New York. (The challenger defeated the incumbent.)

Noem's spokeswoman said it would depend on whether the organizers of the event would be willing to accept a stand-in.

Sutton rejected the idea, saying South Dakotans deserve a governor who is going to show up and fight.

"The people don't want a governor who will send someone else to answer questions and deal with the tough issues," he said. He added, "South Dakotans want a governor that will show up themselves, be open and accountable to the people, and lead by their actions."

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