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'Passionate centrist' Pressler wants to return to his US Senate seat to restore bipartisanship

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SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — Former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler doesn't think his political philosophy has changed much over the years, although the descriptive phrase "moderately conservative Republican" didn't fit after he changed his party affiliation to independent.

Pressler, who served two terms in the House followed by three Senate terms from 1975 to 1997, is calling himself a "passionate centrist" as he seeks to win his old seat back, this time as an independent.

Republicans and Democrats are spending too much energy fighting each other, the 72-year-old Pressler said, adding that he wants to return to the chamber to help end the deadlock and restore bipartisanship to Washington.

"Maybe I can make a contribution toward the end of my life to breaking some of the poisonous atmosphere between Republicans and Democrats in the United States Senate that I've observed," he said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson announced last March that he was retiring from the Senate seat he has held since beating Pressler in the 1996 general election.

Five Republicans are seeking the GOP nomination for the seat: former Gov. Mike Rounds, who is considered the front-runner; state Rep. Stace Nelson, of Fulton; state Sen. Larry Rhoden, of Union Center; Yankton attorney and soldier Jason Ravnsborg; and Sioux Falls physician Annette Bosworth. The GOP primary election is June 3.

The sole Democrat running for the seat is Rick Weiland, a Sioux Falls small business owner who once served as a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle.

Pressler, a Vietnam War veteran, said he supports scaling back overseas military bases in such countries as Italy and Germany. He would rather that money be used to strengthen Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota or go toward civil domestic projects such as water pipelines and the state's fish hatchery.

He also would address issues important to South Dakota residents, such as air service. Passengers in the state are treated poorly by the airlines, as flights are too expensive, they're often collapsed together and changed without notice, he said.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2014 file photo, Larry Pressler, who served three terms as a Republican U.S. senator for South Dakota from 1979 to 1997, is seen in Sioux Falls, S.D. The former Republican Senator doesn't think his political philosophy has changed much over the years, though the descriptive phrase "moderately conservative Republican" didn't fit once he changed his party affiliation to independent. The 72-year-old Pressler is now calling himself a "passionate centrist" as he seeks to win his old seat back. In November, he'll face one Democrat and one of five Republicans seeking the GOP nomination. (AP Photo/Dirk Lammers, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2014 file photo, Larry Pressler, who served three terms as a Republican U.S. senator for South Dakota from 1979 to 1997, is seen in Sioux Falls, S.D. The former Republican Senator doesn't think his political philosophy has changed much over the years, though the descriptive phrase "moderately conservative Republican" didn't fit once he changed his party affiliation to independent. The 72-year-old Pressler is now calling himself a "passionate centrist" as he seeks to win his old seat back. In November, he'll face one Democrat and one of five Republicans seeking the GOP nomination. (AP Photo/Dirk Lammers, File)

"South Dakota needs an old fashioned powerful senator, and I would seek the equivalent of earmarks for some of our projects because other states do," he said.

Pressler, who twice supported President Barack Obama at the polls, said he would have voted against Obama's Affordable Care Act. But now that the act is law, Congress needs to work together with the administration to fix it, he said.

"I've been in Congress long enough to know how to do it and how to approach these things and how to work on a bipartisan basis with other people," Pressler said. "I wouldn't have the White House mad at me."

Of South Dakota's more than 509,000 registered voters as of April 1, slightly more than 96,000 listed themselves as independent or having no party affiliation. That's a 29 percent increase from the 2006 general election, but the state has more than 235,000 Republicans and nearly 176,000 Democrats, according to records from the South Dakota Secretary of State's office.

That heavy Republican base makes it tough for an independent candidate to compete, said Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen.

Schaff said that Pressler has not held elective office in more than 15 years, fundraising has been a challenge, and his support of Obama and gay marriage might not play well in the state. But as a former Republican with name recognition, Pressler could snag some votes from a weak GOP candidate, and could help Weiland in the general election.

"The best that he can hope for is to play a spoiler role," Schaff said.

Pressler, who raised about $10,000 during the first quarter of 2014, said fundraising is a huge challenge, as very few individuals, political action committees or groups give to candidates running as independents.


Follow Dirk Lammers on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ddlammers

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