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CAMPAIGN '08: In South Dakota, it's the incumbent Democrats who get NRA blessing

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- In a state that loves guns, the NRA matters in political campaigns. That's especially true in western South Dakota, where Rapid City dentist Carl Stonecipher and Red Owl rancher Robert Dennis represent a culture of gun advocac...

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- In a state that loves guns, the NRA matters in political campaigns.

That's especially true in western South Dakota, where Rapid City dentist Carl Stonecipher and Red Owl rancher Robert Dennis represent a culture of gun advocacy that crosses social and economic lines and pays close attention to the National Rifle Association endorsements.

The NRA showed its affection for incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson last week with an "A" rating and an endorsement in his re-election campaign against Republican state Rep. Joel Dykstra. The organization has also endorsed incumbent Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin -- who has received an "A" rating from the NRA in all five or her statewide campaigns -- over Republican challenger Chris Lien.

In bagging a double on NRA endorsements, the two Democrats edged out two Republicans who also got "A" ratings and might typically expect to be favored by the gun group. The GOP works hard to portray itself as the party of the Second Amendment, and in many cases succeeds. But Johnson and Herseth Sandlin scored through the power of incumbency and voting records likely to win approval from the powerful gun-rights group and its potential campaign clout in South Dakota.

Dykstra said his own "A" rating from the NRA couldn't overcome the weight of Johnson's incumbency.


"They made it clear they were very unlikely to go away from the incumbent," Dykstra said.

Dennis, a political conservative with a strong pro-gun philosophy, prefers Dykstra and Lien's political philosophy but won't deny that the NRA endorsement will be helpful to Johnson at the polls.

"An endorsement from the NRA will just firm up many people's convictions that he isn't a bad guy and has our best interests at heart," Dennis said. "I think it's pretty important, as most of us are strong on our Second Amendment rights in this state. We don't want anyone taking anything away from us that we feel men and women have fought and died for."

Johnson "has many times voted up the middle, so he gets many of the conservative votes" Dennis said. He said Herseth Sandlin manages to do the same.

Johnson's NRA endorsement strengthened his status as the favorite in his campaign for a third Senate term. And Dennis believes it will help shield the incumbent from possible collateral damage from gun-lover's angst about presidential candidate Barack Obama, who will appear above Johnson on the Democratic side of the state's general-election ballot Nov. 4.

The NRA has launched edgy attack ads portraying Obama as a gun-control advocate, who as president would be likely to mount an assault on Second Amendment rights. Dennis shares those fears.

Those speculations also worry Stonecipher, past president and current director of the local Safari Club International chapter and an NRA member. He supports the organization's core beliefs but struggles to back the group on certain issues, such as the sale of cheap handguns and so-called cop-killer ammunition.

"I don't always agree with the NRA," Stonecipher said. "I didn't agree on the issue of Teflon-coated, cop-killer bullets, and I think those Saturday night specials are junk. There's no reason to defend those, ever. And the hoodlums end up with them."


But Stonecipher does worry about arbitrary "assault-weapon" designations that outlaw legitimate hunting and target weapons, and he fears Obama favors restrictions that could even lead to confiscating some models of firearms.

And while admitting that the NRA endorsement counts, Stonecipher said what really matters is how politicians live up to that endorsement through their votes. He thinks Johnson could have a chance to do just that if he is re-elected and Obama wins the White House and takes action -- as Stonecipher suspects he might -- to weaken basic gun rights.

"That's where those endorsements are going to count. Will they stand up at that point if he (Obama) is elected president and say 'no' to what he wants to do?" Stonecipher said. "That's the real key. When it comes to a vote in Congress, will they stand up and be counted?"

Johnson said he will continue to support the Second Amendment and would use his influence with Obama if necessary to discourage any action that might threaten gun owners.

"I have much more potential influence over Obama than would be the case otherwise," Johnson said Friday.

But he also doubts that would be necessary.

"I don't believe (Obama) would try to do something that draconian. I don't think Mr. Stonecipher has much to worry about," Johnson said. "After all, Obama has said that he will not take away guns. I take him at his word."

Gun advocates demand more than words, however. And Dykstra thinks that appearing on the same side of the ballot with Obama is likely to prove a negative for Johnson with gun owners, even with the NRA endorsement.


"Sen. Johnson has been a big supporter of Obama," Dykstra said. "That can't be good. It's not going to help him here in South Dakota, on this issue or a number of others."

This is Johnson's first NRA endorsement in a U.S. Senate campaign. He wasn't endorsed by the group as the challenger against incumbent Republican Sen. Larry Pressler in 1996. And although he was the incumbent in 2002, Johnson lost the endorsement to Republican challenger John Thune.

Herseth Sandlin received an NRA "A" but not the endorsement in her unsuccessful run for Congress against Gov. Bill Janklow in 2002. She again received an "A" but not the endorsement in her successful June 2004 special-election campaign against Republican state Sen. Larry Diedrich. But later in 2004, in the general election against Diedrich, and again in her 2006 reelection race against Republican Bruce Whalen and this year against Lien, she has since received both the NRA "A" and an endorsement.

Dennis said that all helps Herseth Sandlin at the polls, just as it helps Johnson.

"I'm sure Herseth Sandlin needs it, also," Dennis said. "She will probably get re-elected. The advantage always goes to the incumbent. I wish I could change that."

Herseth Sandlin said she takes pride in her NRA ratings and endorsements and believes the Second Amendment is important in preserving the South Dakota hunting tradition and rights of private gun owners.

"As a defender of our Second Amendment rights, I support allowing law-abiding citizens to exercise their right to carry firearms for personal protection," she said. "I oppose federal firearm registration and licensing and attempts to limit gun owners' rights through bans on types of firearms or ammunition."

Lien is an NRA member who has met with the group in Washington, D.C., and received a qualified "A" because he doesn't have a state legislative or congressional voting record.


"My rating is all based on a questionnaire I filled out. But I'm obviously a strong supporter of the Second Amendment," he said. "I know that the incumbents get it (endorsement) if other things are equal."


Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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