As South Dakota's U.S. Senate race sees closer polls and more attention, the three candidates trying to catch up with frontrunner Republican Mike Rounds hope for more debates and joint appearances at forums.
The Rounds campaign decided early on to choose four debates and skip the rest. That remains the plan, said Rounds spokesman Mitch Krebs. Rounds, a two-term governor, has debated at Dakotafest in Mitchell on Aug. 20, at the State Fair in Huron on Aug. 29 and plans to participate in two upcoming debates that will be televised statewide, one on KELO-TV on Sept. 29 and another on South Dakota Public Broadcasting on Oct. 23.
"We can't do all the requests. If we accepted every invitation to a debate and forum, we'd have our entire schedule filled with that. We've got to find time to actually talk to people," Krebs said.
Rounds is skipping is an educational forum at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell on Sept. 30, which the other three candidates will attend. In addition, he skipped the only debate held in West River and focused on Native American issues held Sept. 12 at the United Tribes Technical College's Black Hills Learning Center in Rapid City.
"It's unfortunate that Mike Rounds isn't here," Democratic candidate Rick Weiland told the Rapid City debate audience, as quoted in a Native Sun News report. "Being the next senator from South Dakota requires getting out there, talking with tribal leaders and establishing a way to stay in touch with all of the people who live on tribal lands."
One seasoned observer of South Dakota politics said Rounds' schedule of just four debates would not be an issue if his lead were larger and more stable.
"Rounds is in trouble," said Jon Schaff, political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen. "It is not good that now in multiple polls we have 55 to 60 percent of voters supporting someone other than Mike Rounds."
Two polls in recent weeks - one by a group of South Dakota media outlets and another by national pollster SurveyUSA - showed Rounds at 39 percent, with Democrat Weiland and Independent/former Republican Larry Pressler in the high and mid-20s, respectively. Tea Party Republican Gordon Howie has polled in the single digits.
"Candidates in the lead tend to avoid debates. Debates can serve as game-changers, so the frontrunner profits from maintaining the status quo," Schaff said. "Whoever is behind always complains there aren't enough debates because they need the game-changing moment."
In recent statewide elections, incumbents with large leads have committed to fewer than four debates, Schaff said, without fanfare.
"Since presidential candidates only do three debates, one might think four is enough," Schaff said. "But it is all perception. Rounds has to point out how many times he has debated. Weiland - who I think has Rounds on the run - can use this as another bludgeon against Rounds as being out of touch."
Tea Party candidate Howie said that when voters talk about Rounds declining to attend debates, it is in connection with the EB-5 immigrant visa scandal that has become a major issue in the campaign. When Rounds was governor, the state-run program was privatized, and documents show former state employee Joop Bollen, of Aberdeen ,raked in millions of dollars in fees. The story continues to generate headlines on a near-daily basis.
"The smell of this EB-5 thing is growing, and people are not real happy that he's not forthcoming about it," Howie said. "It does not look good for him that he's not showing up. They think somehow he's in the middle of this thing and he just wants it to go away. The perception is he's hiding."
The Daily Republic was not able to reach Larry Pressler for comment.
Krebs said Rounds is keeping a busy campaign schedule and won't be distracted by the debate debate.
"We've got a busy schedule, and as we get closer and closer to the election, we've got the governor packed full of lots and lots of stuff. He's got a lot going on, meeting people face to face," Krebs said.