PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — For the homestretch of a suddenly competitive four-way Senate race here — one that could tip control of the Senate — former Sen. Larry Pressler is bringing in the best surrogate he can imagine: a 78-year-old retired FBI agent.
Democrats have dropped about $1 million into the South Dakota Senate race, as have Republicans, and outside groups on all sides have plumped for big buys of their own. But Pressler, a Republican-turned-independent, has little money to advertise, even in a race he can plausibly win.
So, Pressler, 72, will spend key days on the trail reliving the moment he refused a bribe. With him will be retired agent John Good, who led the FBI sting in the Abscam bribery scandal in the late '70s, which led to 19 convictions, including six House members and one senator.
"He's doing this, in part, because I'm under a barrage," Pressler said in an interview with The Associated Press.
A month ago Pressler was an afterthought: a past-his-prime former senator who decided to give it one last quixotic go. Instead, Democrats and Republicans agree, he has disrupted an otherwise uncompetitive Senate race that Republicans are counting on in their push for a Senate majority. Pressler is a key player in a fluid race with former Gov. Mike Rounds, the Republican nominee; businessman Rick Weiland, the Democratic nominee; and Gordon Howie, a tea party inspired independent candidate.
There's been scant reliable polling, but the significant investments by Republicans, Democrats and several major outside groups show the race has warmed up. Most attribute that to Pressler.
In a sign of his rise, Pressler is facing attacks for the first time. Rounds has attacked Pressler's conservative credentials; Weiland has questioned whether he is liberal enough.
"I can't really buy the television time to explain that I'm a friend of both Obama and Romney, but I make my decisions of who to vote for on issues," Pressler said.
Instead, he's continued an off-beat campaign that includes poetry readings and testimonials from obscure figures like Good. His campaign message is part wistful, part wishful. He wants more comity in Washington and tells stories about his time in Congress in the 1980s and 1990s, like the one where the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, approached him to go on his radio show.
"I'm running a little different kind of campaign," he said.
In campaign finance reports filed Wednesday, Pressler reported having $169,000 on hand compared to Rounds' $667,000. Weiland reported raising about $400,000 in the first half of October, but didn't say how much he still had. Howe's totals weren't immediately available.
Pressler has no campaign mailers, no yard signs. There's one full-time staffer plus his wife and a small cadre of volunteers. He gives out his own cell phone number and often replies himself to campaign emails.
Somehow, this approach has worked. The key question: Can he keep it up?
Both parties are closely tracking Pressler's trajectory. Republicans need to net six seats to retake the Senate. South Dakota is viewed as a must-have. The GOP views Pressler warily, and with good reason: He won't say which party he would caucus with. He has said he voted for President Barack Obama, but also hosted a fundraiser for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Democrats seem happy to sow chaos. Some seem content to take their chances on who the independent will caucus with.
Pressler's rise has coincided with Rounds' struggles. The former governor has been dogged by questions about a state-administered federal program that gave wealthy foreigners visas in exchange for big investments in rural South Dakota. That's allowed Pressler to pluck some typically GOP voters like Amy Schochenmaier.
The 34-year-old Pierre resident sees herself as a Republican but supports Pressler because she believes he will conduct himself as a "statesman" and "like a senator."
Rounds has responded with a withering ad aimed at wavering Republicans, highlighting issues where Pressler and Weiland share similar views.
Pressler has faced other questions: Press reports have focused on his post Senate-work, which included serving as a board member at Sky Capital, whose CEO was sentenced to 12 years for defrauding investors. His residency has come under question. Pressler lists the District of Columbia as his primary residence for tax reasons, but has always registered to vote from the same family farm in Humboldt, South Dakota, and rents an apartment in Sioux Falls.
Some voters, like Joey Latunski, of Clark, said they would prefer someone whose motives are more certain. The 63-year-old said he'll vote for Mike Rounds because he wants a sure vote for a Republican Senate leader. Marilyn Teske, of Fort Pierre, said she'll vote for Rick Weiland for virtually the same reason — a clear vote for Democrats.
"I would not have a lot of trust in what (Pressler) might do when he gets to the Senate," she said.