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Mike rounds, Christopher Viehbacher

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, right, speaks with an attendee of the Western Governors Association annual meeting in June 2006 in Sedona, Ariz.

SIOUX CITY | Planes and politics piqued the interest of Mike Rounds as a high school student in the early 1970s.

He mastered both, earning a pilot's license by the time he was 17. By his college years, Rounds had an internship in the South Dakota Legislature, where he later became a state senator. That was followed by two terms as governor.

Now, as a powerhouse Republican, he's vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2014. For the time being, no one else has announced plans to run, including incumbent Tim Johnson, a Democrat. In Republican-leaning South Dakota, Rounds may be key to the Republicans taking back the U.S. Senate. 

The important role doesn't come as a surprise to Derald Gross, 76. Gross was in his 30s working as the head pressman at the Pierre Capital Journal when he first met Rounds, then a high school sophomore and part-time gopher in the newspaper press room.

"It was a messy job, but he did it," said Gross, of Fort Pierre. "He'd just do his job, and was dependable as heck."

Rounds often would come back from the weekend with stories about the latest training flight.

"He must have spent everything he earned in that part-time job on taking airplane lessons," Gross said.

He also talked incessantly about politics, especially conservative politics, Gross said. "I told my wife about this Rounds kid, I said, 'Mike Rounds, I bet one day he'll be a politician, governor or senator or something.'"

Years later, Rounds still has both passions and sees a connection between cruising the skies and being in politics. 

"It requires discipline. You study and then you make good choices. I think that's the same thing that you have to do in politics -- you study and then you have to make decisions," he said. 

FROM PIERRE TO ... PIERRE

Rounds said he enjoyed his upbringing as the eldest of 11 kids raised by Joyce and Don Rounds. The hilly Missouri River area factored into his active youth.

"Pierre was a great place to grow up," Rounds said.

Pam Roberts was raised in Pierre and had Joyce Rounds as her Girl Scouts Brownie troop leader. She said there was a strong expectation that the Rounds kids would work to excel.

"In high school, he was always the one the other kids looked up to," said Roberts, now the South Dakota Labor and Regulation Department secretary. 

As a youngster, Rounds was intrigued by 1972 Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy but was truly a solid Republican by high school. He would go on to South Dakota State University, head back to Pierre after graduation and marry Jean Vedve. They would raise four kids. 

Gross said he wasn't surprised seeing Rounds after his college years in Pierre, running an insurance business. His thoughts were, "Holy cow, that guy is moving."

Rounds ran for the South Dakota Senate, winning a seat in 1990. He was majority leader for six years.

"I was impressed that he worked his way up in the leadership of the Senate so quickly, because he was fairly young to be elected a senator from a political town like Pierre," Roberts said.

Arne Brown, 82, of Brookings, was a Republican in the South Dakota Senate for four years when Rounds was majority leader. He said Rounds was a solid leader, even during times they didn't agree on issues.

"The thing he did really well was to have the patience to listen to everybody and then bring people together, even on difficult issues -- to let us blow off steam but then get down and do the job that we had to do for the state," Brown said. "He had a lot of integrity and a lot of unselfishness."

BALANCING A BUDGET

When Rounds ran for governor in 2002, he was a late entrant. Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby were already in as Republican candidates, and seen as front-runners.

Brown said Barnett and Kirby engaged in negative campaigning against each other while Rounds stayed outside the fray. He got 44 percent in the primary.

"He came out like a knight in shining armor," Brown said.

As a legislator and governor, Rounds excelled in balancing the state's budget without raising taxes by keeping an eye on spending, Brown said.

Rounds also gained national attention in 2005 for his use of the state aircraft on personal and political business and his signing of legislation in 2006 to ban most abortions in South Dakota. It later was overturned. 

South Dakota Democratic Party Executive Director Ben Nesselhuf said the governor was more show than substance. 

"He was great at showing up at ribbon-cuttings," said Nesselhuf, a former Democratic state legislator. "I think he made it to every one in the state. As far as providing a vision or leadership to the state, that was really where he was lacking. It kind of became a joke around the Capitol that he was governor to get his name on the door, and that was about it."

Nesselhuf said education got minimal funding and wages languished during Rounds’ tenure.

“It was just a very stagnant eight years,” he said.

REPUBLICAN PRIMARY COULD LIE AHEAD

The Johnson seat is being closely watched as Republicans seek to regain control of the Senate in the 2014 elections. Four Senate Democrats, including Tom Harkin, of Iowa, have announced plans to retire.

Johnson, 66, of Vermillion, has said he will make a public statement on his political future by the end of March. He has been in the office for three terms.

Republicans need to gain six seats to take control of the Senate.

A Thursday Public Policy Polling poll placed Rounds' favorability rating at 67 percent among South Dakota Republicans; 17 percent viewed him unfavorably.

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., a potential Republican Senate candidate, had 71 percent favorability.

Possible candidates on the Democratic side include former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, the son of Tim Johnson. 

In the latest fundraising report, in December, Rounds had raised $270,000. A new report is expected in April. 

Roberts, the Department of Labor official, said Rounds is the clear favorite.

"As a Republican, I just don't see why anybody else would run, because we have a great candidate that we can all get behind," Roberts said. "He is very popular not only in Pierre but statewide. He has a good head on his shoulders. I can't think of a better leader for South Dakota than Mike Rounds."

Nesselhuf said Rounds' name recognition makes him a formidable candidate but that he could be beaten by a well-funded opponent.

"His two statewide races, he outspent the Democrat by more than 2-to-1. If you have a race where the Democratic candidate has enough resources to match Gov. Rounds, I don't think there is a way that Mike Rounds can win. I think he's got that many glaring holes in his record," Nesselhuf said.

Rounds said he’s staying focused on the task, a skill he long ago adopted flying the skies.

"That's something that in D.C. they are not doing right now,” he said. “They are not sitting down, taking off their suit jackets and ties, rolling up their sleeves and getting into the tough, nitty-gritty details to make good decisions."

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