Cover Story

Scorched-earth politics

With a one-vote margin, every Senate race is huge, but the South Dakota contest is a battle between a popular president and a popular senator-even though neither one appears on the ballot. So why is the political contest between Tim Johnson and John Thune more about drought and the future of farming than about Bush, Daschle, and who controls Washington?

Issue: "Scorched-earth politics," Sept. 7, 2002

If Tom Daschle seemed in a hurry to close down the Senate for summer recess back in early August, there was a good reason: He had a fair to get to. It's no coincidence, surely, that fair season corresponds with campaign season in South Dakota. In a state where voters expect to personally shake hands with every office seeker, politicians are more common than prize-winning pigs at the various county fairs that seem to run continuously throughout the hot prairie summer.

The state fair, of course, is the granddaddy of them all, the place to schmooze perhaps 20 percent of the far-flung population in just a couple of days. Small wonder Mr. Daschle dashed straight to the fairgrounds when Congress recessed. In temperatures approaching 100 degrees, Mr. DaschleÑone of the three or four most powerful men in Washington-stood for hours inside a white wooden shack, kissing babies, signing autographs, and otherwise stumping for votes.

Nothing remarkable there-except that Mr. Daschle isn't even running for reelection this year. Instead, it's his protégé, freshman Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, in the fight of his political life against a telegenic young Republican with a statewide base. That's bad news for Mr. Daschle, whose majority-leader clout will evaporate if the GOP can pick up a single seat in November, relegating the Democrats to minority status.

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The Bush White House would love to find that seat in Mr. Daschle's own backyard. The president personally recruited John Thune, South Dakota's lone House member, to give up on a sure-thing gubernatorial bid and run for the Senate instead. By upsetting the state's junior senator, Mr. Thune would be doing the president a huge favor: Republicans would retake the Senate and break the legislative logjam while simultaneously embarrassing Mr. Daschle and derailing his nascent presidential campaign.

With so much at stake, South Dakotans are hunkering down for the nastiest fight since the Battle of Wounded Knee. Out-of-state groups have been blanketing the airwaves for months with attack ads aimed at both candidates, and the national parties are buying up almost every available minute of airtime in the state's dirt-cheap media markets. Indeed, since April, South Dakota has seen more political advertising than any other state in the country. Republican ads all but blamed the Democrats for a spate of forest fires. Democrats warned that a Republican Senate would end Social Security and endanger the state's aging population. Both sides insist that the other guy is lying.

"Tell Tim Johnson to stop these false negative attacks!" says an ad for Mr. Thune, while Mr. Johnson counters with "Call John Thune and tell him South Dakota expects honest leadership!"

But no amount of phone calls is likely to stop the mudslinging in what could turn out to be the priciest per-capita political campaign in American history. The candidates expect to spend $15 million, or nearly $50 per vote, in a state where only about 325,000 citizens will go to the polls. As any hog farmer can tell you, $15 million buys a lot of mud.

It's more than a little ironic that South Dakota's 452,000 registered voters have the opportunity to chart the nation's political course for the next two years. This is a state, after all, with a population roughly the size of Baltimore's, spread over a land mass roughly half the size of California. South Dakotans are used to being overlooked in the great national debates, and they keep a sense of humor about their isolation and seeming insignificance. (At the Dairy Queen restaurant across from the state fairgrounds, three girls taking a break from their 4-H duties debated whose hometown was the smallest: The one where the nearest movie theater is 60 miles away? The one with just three reading carrels in the public library? Or the one with a dead-end Main Street?)

Not since George McGovern ran for president in 1972 has South Dakota been so squarely in the national spotlight. In Tom Daschle, South Dakotans have a senator who not only brings home the federal bacon but brings them a measure of respect, as well. Throughout the tragedy of 9/11 and the ensuing war, there was Tom (as he's universally known here), front and center. At the table. On national television. By the president's side.

A little guy from a little state goes to Washington and makes it big. It's the kind of story South Dakotans love-and one they may not be eager to bring to a close. Without his role as majority leader, Mr. Daschle likes to remind the voters, he won't be in a position to push the farm subsidies, research grants, and highway projects so important to the state's battered economy.

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