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.
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.
Between the pork and the pride, few voters here are eager to see Mr. Daschle stripped of his enormous power in Washington. Although he's not on the ballot, he'll cast a long shadow in November, neutralizing the Republicans' 46,000-vote advantage in party registrations.
Were it not for Mr. Daschle, in fact, the GOP's Mr. Thune would have to be considered the favorite in this race. Mr. Johnson, the 55-year-old incumbent, came across as affable but unremarkable in a day of campaigning at the state fair. First elected in 1996 by just 8,500 votes, he has kept a low profile in Washington, and back home in South Dakota he schmoozes and shakes hands in an awkward, almost shy way.
Mr. Thune, on the other hand, is a natural. Tall and thin with a movie-star smile and a deep tan, the 41-year-old is a candidate clearly ready for prime time. Throughout a hot, muggy August afternoon, he pumped hundreds of hands and signed scores of miniature rubber basketballs without ever showing a drop of sweat on his light blue shirt. With kids he displayed a "Gimme Five" kind of ease, while parents consistently praised him for his thoughtful listening and command of the issues.
In a state where glamor is in short supply, political observers in South Dakota have compared Mr. Thune to John F. Kennedy, and he actually draws groupies at his campaign events. He's won statewide office three times, crushing one opponent by the biggest margin in state history.
With his impressive resumé and strong personality, Mr. Thune was a top priority among GOP political advisers looking for a pick-up in the Senate. The president flew Mr. Thune to Washington for a private dinner at the White House. Armed with promises of full support from a president who won 60 percent of the South Dakota vote in 2000, Mr. Thune abandoned this carefully planned gubernatorial bid in favor of the highly risky Senate race.
In terms of support for his handpicked candidate, Mr. Bush has been as good as his word. In April he flew in for a fundraiser that netted $350,000 for the Thune campaign. He was back again in August, using the 75th anniversary of the Mount Rushmore monument as a backdrop for talking about homeland security-always a weak point for the Democrats.
But for all the goodwill Mr. Bush enjoys in South Dakota, he may actually prove to be a drag on his handpicked candidate. Burdened with pressing national issues and conflicting state concerns, the president can't always afford to make the same narrow political calculations as his nemesis, Mr. Daschle.
No issue illustrates that better than the current drought-the worst South Dakota has seen since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. Across vast swaths of the state, billions of dollars worth of crops are drying up under a withering sun. Skeletal-looking corn stalks are green for only the first foot or so, as if that were all the water they could suck from the selfish earth. For the remaining five or six feet, they are as crisp and brown as Fritos.
Again and again at the state fair, voters wanted to hear from Mr. Thune about drought relief. For their part, the Democrats are trumpeting their plan to anyone who will listen: Sens. Johnson and Daschle have co-sponsored a bill that would provide at least $5 billion in emergency aid immediately, and the figure would rise from there if the drought drags on.
Mr. Thune, for his part, has called for $6 billion in drought relief-but there's a major catch. He wants the money to come from the mammoth $180 billion farm bill passed by Congress earlier this year. Because farm prices on the open market are higher than expected, the federal government won't need all the money budgeted to subsidize crop payments this year. Mr. Thune and his fellow Republicans in the House want to pass the savings along to drought-afflicted farmers, but the checks wouldn't start flowing until the damage can be quantified.
Democrats insist that will be too late to rescue family farmers in South Dakota who are facing imminent ruin. Mr. Daschle publicly called on the president to announce emergency drought relief during his visit to Mount Rushmore, but Mr. Bush, whose top priority is funding a costly war on terrorism, touched on the topic almost as an aside. "People hurt here, and I know that," the president said, sounding almost Clintonian. "'We want to help with this drought."
Mr. Daschle's reaction after the Rushmore speech was almost as dry as the soil. "It's always great to have the president of the United States come to your state," he told reporters covering the event. "It's a disappointment when the president comes this far to say so little."
The Johnson campaign is quick to point out that South Dakota's Democratic duo in the Senate has done more than just talk. Thanks to a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, Mr. Johnson has been able to direct nearly $400 million toward 82 different projects around the state this year alone. Among other things, the federal money went for such pressing national concerns as repairing sewers, building highways, and expanding rural television service.
Mr. Johnson snagged his seat on the Appropriations Committee largely through his ties to Mr. Daschle, who can hand out such goodies as he pleases. Mr. Thune, however, can hardly expect the same royal treatment from Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican waiting to take the reins from Mr. Daschle-another fact Mr. Johnson likes to reinforce with the voters.
He stresses that South Dakota has perhaps the strongest Senate delegation in the entire nation thanks to Mr. Daschle's position as majority leader and his own seat on Appropriations. "That's a powerful one-two punch," he likes to say. His campaign spokesman is even blunter: "In this state, it is not about whether the Democrats keep the majority, it is whether South Dakota gets to keep its clout in the Senate."
So far, voters seem to be buying that argument. An Aug. 25 poll shows the two candidates deadlocked at 40 percent each, but an earlier survey revealed a troubling fact for Mr. Thune: When respondents were told that reelecting Mr. Johnson would keep Mr. Daschle in power, support for Mr. Johnson shot up by 12 points.
For Mr. Thune, then, the trick is tying himself to a popular president without seeming to cut loose a popular, powerful senator. He says mostly nice things about Mr. Daschle, and his campaign aides worry that GOP efforts to demonize the majority leader in other states may actually backfire in South Dakota. Even among GOP partisans at the state fair, Mr. Thune repeatedly refused to attack Mr. Daschle. When one woman wished him luck in "get[ting] rid of Tom and his liberal buddies," Mr. Thune's reply was mild. "We need a Senate that's willing to work with the president," he said, deflecting attention from the man most unwilling to do so.
Mr. Thune would certainly be willing to work with the president, but when it comes to working with Mr. Thune, the president's hands may be tied. So unless Mr. Bush springs an October Surprise in the form of emergency drought aid, Republicans can only keep one eye on the polls and another on the skies. The Democrats, after all, have shown they're willing to use an act of Congress to get their man elected. For the Republicans, it may, literally, take an act of God.