South Dakota: The Big Little Race

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VINCENT J. MUSI/AURORA FOR TIME

Bush lends a bit of presidential prestige to candidate Thune in Sioux Falls

You would figure that the barbecue that Senator Tim Johnson threw a few weeks ago in Madison, S.D., would be a typical small-town affair. Two hundred citizens showed up for food and a chance to ask questions of their Senator. But so did a bbc camera crew, a Japanese newspaper reporter, a TV team from Italy and the Washington bureau chief of the Economist.

That a Senate race in a state with fewer people than the city of San Francisco is getting all this attention has little to do with the two candidates, Democrat Johnson and Republican John Thune. But control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs, making close contests like this one crucial. Moreover, many political operatives regard the South Dakota race as a proxy war between Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, the state's senior Senator, and President George W. Bush, who sweet-talked Thune out of running for Governor so the Republicans might have a chance of humiliating Daschle in his increasingly Republican home state. Polls show an exceedingly tight race.


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Before this campaign, Johnson, who is seeking a second term, and Thune, running for the Senate after three terms as the state's only Representative, were regarded as easygoing and likable. Then the national parties and other outside organizations started pouring millions of dollars into TV advertising, bombarding the state with commercials to the point that the average voter is estimated to have seen more than 800 of them. A good deal of the advertising has been negative. "With this much clutter out there and this much money being spent on the airwaves, the candidates start losing control of the message," Thune frets. "A lot of times I don't think it fits the style and tone of South Dakota." That may be. But Thune ran a spot featuring a picture of Saddam Hussein while criticizing Johnson for voting against the missile-defense program. Daschle called the ad "repulsive," and Johnson, whose Army-sergeant son only recently returned from Afghanistan, demanded an apology. Thune insists that while the national media criticized him, "I didn't catch any flak from real voters, from people in South Dakota. There was no blowback at all."

As for the issues, both candidates insist that the race will be decided on such local concerns as jobs and prescription drugs for seniors. Both agree that Social Security should be protected, and both support prescription benefits for seniors. They just don't agree on how to achieve these ends. Neither has been shy about touting the national implications of a victory. Thune talks of the influence he would have with the White House; Johnson, of the importance of keeping Daschle in control of the Senate as well as holding on to his own Appropriations Committee post. South Dakotans are keenly aware of what it means to have clout in Washington. The state receives more money than it remits in taxes, and with an aging population and large numbers of impoverished Native Americans and drought-stricken farmers, it needs those funds. Thune's campaign took a body blow when Bush, who has made three trips to South Dakota as President, neglected on his latest visit to offer any extra drought relief. When the President belatedly served up an aid package, Thune took credit for persuading him to do so, while Johnson attacked it as too small to be of much help.

The latest controversy in the campaign could hurt Johnson. The South Dakota Democratic Party announced last week that it had dismissed a campaign worker suspected of falsifying absentee-ballot applications in the party's effort to register thousands of new voters on Native American reservations. Johnson insists that he was not involved in the operation, but Thune's campaign suggests it was part of Johnson's strategy to "win at any cost." One thing seems clear: a campaign that everyone thought couldn't get any uglier or more expensive shows every sign of doing just that.