Independent candidate for U.S. Senate Gordon Howie, Dakotafest, Mitchell, SD 2014.08020

Gordon Howie—mostly harmless, right?

It's hard to tell who won yesterday's Senate debate at Dakotafest. But Mike Rounds lost. You know how you can tell? The Republican frontrunner took time to attack Tea Party conservative Gordon Howie, the candidate who places fourth in every poll that bothers to mention him, the man with the least chance of beating him in November.

This telling exchange came in Question #4 of the Dakotafest debate, on the Affordable Care Act. Rounds said repeal and replace. Independent Larry Pressler said more fuss over ACA repeal wastes time better spent getting things done in Washington. Weiland said the Affordable Care Act, while good, didn't make health care affordable enough and pitched his Medicare-as-public-option plan. He also said Rounds was lying in an earlier response when he said that the ACA was robbing Medicare. Howie said nuke the ACA and complained that Rounds killed his bill to nullify the ACA in 2010.

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Mike Rounds, Dakotafest debate, Mitchell, SD, 2014.08.20

Oooh, that Gordy! Oooh, that Gordy! He makes me so mad! I'll fix him—I'm gonna write him a mean letter....

While Howie spoke, Rounds leaned over and whispered something to moderator Jerry Oster from WNAX. When Howie finished, instead of moving on to the next question, Oster announced that Rounds would get a chance to respond. No such rebuttal had taken place in either debate Wednesday, but evidently and happily, the rules allowed such responses. Rounds opened his rebuttal by attacking Howie. He said, quite reasonably, that Gordon (Rounds said Gordon) can't change federal law with state law.

But then Rounds took another swing at Howie. He said that as a legislator, Gordy (Rounds said Gordy) voted on four budget bills to spend $66 million more than the Rounds Administration had requested. Rounds went on to say Medicare means government controls your health care and mentioned Sarah Palin's death panels.

The other candidates got to rebut as well and did so ably. But the kicker here is that Mike Rounds bothered to attack Gordon Howie as a bigger spender than he. (Seriously, anybody who believes Mike Rounds is a bigger fiscal conservative than Gordon Howie probably also believes that Benjamin Sisko was a better captain that James T. Kirk.)

We bloggers can spend our time razzing Gordon Howie, because Gordon is all sorts of fun. But Mike Rounds is not a blogger. (Heck, he's not even a Tweeter, or an e-mailer.) He's the Republican front-runner, the sure thing, the guy who by his vaunted polling data ought to be able to coast to coronation in November without dirtying his hands with so much as a faint dismissive wave toward Gordy, Larry, or Ricky.

But there Mikey went, letting Howie get under his skin and draw an absurd attack that makes Rounds look small (excuse me, smaller) and Howie look serious.

We will continue to debate who won Wednesday at Dakotafest (and I have full analysis of the Senate debate coming up). But Mike Rounds's thin-skinnedness shows that he lost.