In last night's debate on South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Rep. Kristi Noem gave us her smirky pout, her Palinesque ya knows, and submissive come-hither head tilt, but not much else. She repeats disproven lies with a straight face, then plays the victim by automatically labelling Varilek's truthful, substantiable criticisms of her non-record as lies and smears.

If Varilek sounds wonky, it is in part because he is wonky (an admirable quality in a legislator!). His wonkiness stands out all the more in contrast with Rep. Noem's complete inability to grapple with policy in any depth or detail beyond the talking points handed to her. As Mr. Ehrisman recognizes in his assessment of their previous debate, Varilek completely outclasses Noem in real policy knowledge and intelligence. Noem's only resort to win election is image.

Regular folks recognize the difference in the quality of the candidates. Over the last three months, Rep. Noem enjoyed the predictable fundraising advantage of an incumbent getting free national press. But over the last three months, Varilek raised almost twice as from individuals giving small donations. Folks giving under $200 gave Varilek $82,000; Rep. Noem attracted just $44,000 in such small donations. In overall individual donations, Rep. Noem's edge since July 1 was notably small, $309,000 to Varilek's $267,000. Only the big PACs are keeping Noem ahead of Varilek: she got $135,000 in PAC money, versus Varilek's $7,000.

Even Republicans ought to be able to recognize that Kristi Noem is not up to the job of Congresswoman. Staunch Republican blogger and professor Jon Schaaf thinks Rep. Noem will still win, but not because of any skills she's demonstrated:

I do not get a sense that Kristi Noem is beloved amongst South Dakotans (as John Thune is, or Tom Daschle once was), but my sense is that Varilek still has low name recognition and just will not be able to get over the hump. One thing we have seen over the last two years, though, is that Kristi Noem better get more serious about earning her legislative chops or one day there will be a different election environment with a higher quality challenger and she is going to get rude wake-up call.

In Congress, say the text books, there are three types of career paths that a member might take. One is that of craftsman of legislation. That's what Tim Johnson has done. The other is leadership. That is the path the Thune and Daschle paved. Lastly, there is constituency service. I think you could argue Tim Johnson has also filled this role. I still don't know which path Noem plans on taking [Jon Schaaf, "Actual South Dakota Politics," South Dakota Politics, October 18, 2012].

Read that last paragraph again: A good Republican looks at Kristi Noem's record and doesn't see clear evidence of crafting legislation, acting with leadership, or serving constituents.

That's why Rep. Kristi Noem and her mouthpiece blog spend much more time manufacturing attacks on Varilek than celebrating Noem's achievements in Washington. They can't point to any such achievements.

We South Dakotans weakened our voice and standing in Washington in 2010 by replacing a workhorse with a showhorse. We have a chance now to exactly reverse that mistake, send Kristi Noem back to the farm she loves, and send back to Washington an intelligent, hard-working leader who will do the hard work South Dakota needs.