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Meet the Republican-turned-independent giving the GOP fits

Pressler represents the sort of establishment Republicanism that's fallen out of favor as the tea party's power has risen.

RAPID CITY, South Dakota — He's the candidate who could confound Republican hopes for a Senate seat here — and perhaps even GOP dreams of taking the majority in the upper chamber.

Larry Pressler, the former GOP senator-turned-Independent, has nipped at the heels of Republican front-runner Mike Rounds in recent polling. Pressler, 72, served 18 years in the Senate from South Dakota before being defeated by Democrat Tim Johnson in 1998. Johnson is retiring this year, leaving a suddenly chaotic scramble for the open seat.

A self-described "pay-go, fiscal conservative," Pressler hopes to bolster the ranks of moderates in the Senate at a time of partisan polarization. He represents the sort of establishment Republicanism that has fallen out of favor in recent years as the tea party's power has risen.

For one thing, Pressler says he actually wants to work with President Obama. 

"Part of my reason for supporting Obama—it was for conservative reasons," Pressler said in an interview with msnbc. "It's been Republican presidents and Republican congresses who've added more to the deficit, and Democrats who've added less to the deficit."

A member of the "Fix the Debt" commission—an outside group of fiscal hawks that received funding from prominent business leaders—Pressler supports the Affordable Care Act because he believes it will help curb health care spending by helping to control drug costs and applies means-testing. (Subsidies for insurance purchased on the health-care exchanges are income-based.)

He believes Congress needs to pass similar regulations to control drug costs as well as means-testing to control Medicare costs as well. "All those things need to be applied to Medicare. Medicare can learn from the Affordable Care Act," Pressler said.

Liberals may be delighted at the prospect of Pressler snatching a Senate seat away from Republicans, but they aren't likely to be happy with his focus on the deficit and entitlement reform. He wants to raise the retirement age gradually for Social Security (though not Medicare), though he denied wanting to "balance the budget" by paring back the program.  He also wants to amend Obamacare to include tort reform and said he'd consider trying to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

But Pressler says he's also willing to challenge the Republican orthodoxy on tax cuts as well, calling the party "poisonously locked" into its position on the issue. He wants a surtax on incomes above $1 million, as well as eliminating the mortgage interest deduction on second homes and certain corporate tax deductions.

Pressler says he needs to "talk to both sides" before deciding which party he will caucus with if elected. But he says he would work closely with fellow Independent Sen. Angus King and moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins, both of Maine, and, if elected, Independent Greg Orman in Kansas. "The moderates have to take the Senate," Pressler said, citing his work with former North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad—a fiscal hawk and moderate Democrat—the last time he was in the Senate.

He also says that he wants to work with Obama, whom he endorsed for president and first supported for his stance on veterans' issues. (Pressler, a Vietnam veteran, still suffers from PTSD.)

"I don't think I'd be supportive of him necessarily; I'd certainly want to work with him," said Pressler, who believes that some Republicans have gone too far in lashing out against the president. "I'm not going down there to say I'm going to impeach you," he said.

Pressler doesn't anticipate that he'll receive an influx of outside spending. He also thinks that both Rick Weiland, the Democratic candidate, and Rounds will direct their funds toward battling his candidacy. But he also rejects calls for Weiland or any of the other candidates to drop out of the race to give him a better shot.

"I believe we should all stay in the race. I think we should work hard to state our issues," he said. "I'm not into this dropout talk."