With seven weeks left before the South Dakota primary, the Republican race for U.S. House is coming down to the little differences.
And Monday night, the three GOP candidates emphasized those little differences that they hope will send them into the general election against Democratic incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.
Chris Nelson of Pierre, Kristi Noem of Castlewood and Blake Curd of Sioux Falls spoke to voters at a Vermillion forum sponsored by the Clay County Republicans. Nelson currently serves as South Dakota Secretary of State, while Noem and Curd serve in the South Dakota Legislature.
The Republican trio agreed on their desire to take the gavel out of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's hands in what they believe will be a new GOP majority.
Health care reform commanded much of the question-and-answer portion of the forum. All three candidates spoke of their goal of repealing the reforms passed by Congress.
In his opening remarks, Curd spoke on his background as a surgeon, small businessman, state legislator and military, including a deployment in Kuwait that included missions in Iraq.
Curd said he pursued the U.S. House race because of what he sees in Washington, D.C.
"I never saw pursuing (Congress) until I recognized that something was going wrong," he said. "I felt compelled to put my hat in the ring."
Curd called for stopping the actions by the current Democratic majority in the White House and Congress.
"They are writing chapters in the book, and we know how that book will end," he said.
Curd criticized what he characterized as a federal takeover of the auto industry. He also criticized the $14.3 trillion deficit, illustrating that it represented a $46,000 burden for a small child in the back of the room.
The federal government is also regulating the finance industry and offering bailouts for major banks and financial institutions, Curd said. The bailout is supposed to make the country great but has the opposite effect, he said.
Curd attacked what he considered modern socialism in the U.S. "We need to be opportunity equal, not result equal," he said.
Election to office can often mean stopping bad legislation, Curd said.
"Sometimes the best action by government is nothing and staying out of the way," he said, calling for people to chart their own futures.
During her opening remarks, Noem spoke of her experiences in agriculture, small business and the state Legislature. She currently serves as assistant majority leader in the South Dakota House.
Noem said she learned at an early age about what she sees as the negative impact of too much government regulation. She spoke of her frustrations in farming and business.
If elected to the U.S. House, Noem said she would take a different path than Herseth Sandlin.
"There is a big difference between going to Congress and voting, and going to Congress and leading," Noem said.
The current health care reform will raise taxes and cut programs at the very time it adds more people to the rolls, Noem said. In addition, the federal stimulus bills have raised the deficit without creating jobs and improving the economy, she said.
Herseth Sandlin could have killed legislation by convincing four members of her Blue Dog Democrat coalition to change their votes, Noem said.
In terms of legislative service, Noem touted her introduction of firearms legislation. She said she was a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and "a defender of Second Amendment rights."
Noem also pointed to her work with wind energy development, which she said lifted past restrictions on the industry and should stimulate South Dakota's economy. She noted the potential for a wind farm coming to the state, covering five counties and creating 3,000 jobs.
Noem said she would not be a career politician. Congress has gotten out of touch with everyday Americans, she said.
"(Congress) is the people's house, not Nancy Pelosi's house," she said.
In his opening remarks, Nelson pointed to his political experience. He has served 23 years in public service, the last seven as secretary of state. He said he has won two statewide races in the election and re-election to his current office.
"I believe that I have earned the trust of South Dakota," he said. "You don't have to guess what you are getting. You can look at the track record."
Nelson said he also remains part of the family farm operation, raising cattle near White Lake.
During his campaign travels, Nelson said he has heard strong sentiment from voters to unseat incumbents in Congress.
Herseth Sandlin's voting record contradicts her claim to be a fiscal conservative, Nelson said. He pointed to the congresswoman's votes for an $800 billion spending bill and raising the debt limit by $1.9 trillion.
Herseth Sandlin has also cast contradicting votes or taken conflicting stances on the cap-and-trade bill and health care reform, Nelson said.
By 2052, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will consume all of the federal taxes, leaving nothing for national defense and other needs, Nelson said.
The current federal spending harms economic prosperity and makes it difficult for the average American to get ahead, Nelson said.
Looking ahead to the general election, Nelson said he represents the best chance to defeat Herseth Sandlin. He pointed to a poll that initially showed him trailing the congresswoman by seven percentage points, then narrowing the gap to two points a month later.
"I am in a position, in this election, to take this (House) seat back for the Republican Party," he said.
In the next portion of the forum, the candidates were asked about health reform.
Nelson said he wanted to deal with pieces of the reform bill, especially the fiscal aspect. "We need to begin taking this bill apart," he said.
Nelson called for cutting costs and increasing access, along with more competition in the insurance industry. He also called for malpractice reform and weeding out fraud and abuse.
Noem said she would seek to repeal the bill, or at least strip its funding. She acknowledged the need for some reforms with more of a free-market emphasis. Those reforms include allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, ending defensive medicine that drives up costs, and offering lower premiums for healthier lifestyles.
Curd called for a three-pronged approach to health reform consisting of lower costs, higher quality and greater access.
Curd criticized what he called "job killing" federal mandates for health reform. He would seek to strip the funding to make implementation of the current reforms more difficult.
Curd also called for putting more emphasis on the doctor-patient relationship with less government oversight and regulation.
"We don't need a bureaucrat in Washington D.C. telling us what is best for patients in South Dakota," he said.
In other areas:
• When asked which U.S. House committees they would seek, Nelson listed Agriculture and Banking; Noem listed Agriculture and Natural Resources; and Curd listed Ways and Means along with Armed Services.
• All three candidates said they are pro-life and oppose gay marriage.
• When asked about Iran's nuclear capabilities, the candidates took slightly different approaches.
Curd said he agrees with President Obama's stand that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Curd favors increasing pressure on Iran with the help of the international community.
Noem favors sending a strong message to Iran about the consequences if it uses nuclear weapons.
Nelson said he sees Israel as the front line in the battle, with Iranian leaders vowing "to wipe Israel off the map."
"I see the (Obama) administration backing away from the support of Israel in several different ways," Nelson said. "We need to make sure we maintain a close relationship with Israel."