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.
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.