- VERMILLION, S.D. 10/13/2014 by Jonathon Martin (NY Times)

One candidate will recite cowboy poetry on Wednesday at a Sioux Falls restaurant. A second thundered against his party as know-nothings who didn’t understand his state. A third until recently had been spurned by his would-be allies and donors, and a fourth runs African safaris in his spare time while railing against the size of the federal government.

In an era of homogenized, data-driven campaigns, a quirky and unpredictable contest has emerged in South Dakota, confounding operatives and experts and potentially deciding who controls the United States Senate after the midterm elections.

A race that most had thought was safely Republican is suddenly the focus of national attention, thanks to the surprisingly successful candidacy of former Senator Larry Pressler, a Republican who is running as an independent. Mr. Pressler, who will do the poetry reading, has a staff of one and a small budget, but has a longstanding connection to South Dakota voters.

That has undercut the Republican candidate, former Gov. Mike Rounds. Blending in at a homecoming football tailgate in his red University of South Dakota Coyotes shirt here on Saturday, Mr. Rounds recalled a contentious meeting with officials of the National Republican Senatorial Committee last month.

“I said, ‘What is your win-loss record?’ ” Mr. Rounds said. “I know what mine is.”

Mr. Pressler has gained in the polls as Mr. Rounds, the front-runner, has been battered through TV ads over a visa-for-citizenship scandal that took place during his governorship.

With Mr. Pressler and the Democratic nominee, Rick Weiland, both drawing closer to Mr. Rounds, Democrats and Republicans are now racing to pour money into this sparsely populated state, where the Midwest and West converge and prairie populism meets rural conservatism. Further complicating the race is a fourth candidate, Gordon Howie, a conservative independent who runs the safaris. He is in single digits in polls but is thought to be pulling from Mr. Rounds.

Mr. Pressler will not say which party he would caucus with, but Democrats have just begun showing an ad attacking only Mr. Rounds — an indication that they believe Mr. Pressler will join them. Republicans are angry that Mr. Rounds has not aggressively defended himself against attacks on the abuse of the EB-5 visa program in his administration and his insistence until only recently to run a positive campaign.

But Mr. Rounds, who was elected governor in 2002 after the two Republican front-runners attacked each other in the primary, said his party’s Washington-based operatives did not appreciate how much South Dakotans loathe negative attack ads. Mr. Rounds also recalled telling his party’s top strategists that South Dakota, which has a storied history of races decided by fewer than a thousand votes, would be close.

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