EAGLE BUTTE, SOUTH DAKOTA — Tim Johnson can't dance. Even the simple two-step march into the pow-wow circle at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation looks like a stretch for the resolutely unflashy junior senator from South Dakota.
But the votes here could decide one of the closest races of this election season, as well as who controls the next US Senate. The candidate gamely thumps on around the arena.
It's a sign that, despite the millions in outside dollars pouring into the state, this race is still intensely local. And both sides say that it will be won or lost on the ground, not on the airwaves.
With control of a closely divided Senate on the line, any tight race has national consequences. But this race has taken on special import because it's on the home turf of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who may take on President Bush in 2004. President Bush personally recruited Rep. John Thune to oppose Mr. Johnson, a first-term incumbent. The president has visited South Dakota three times since his election in 2000, which he won here by a margin of 22 points over Vice President Al Gore.
At first glance, South Dakota is a dream venue for outside groups with cash to spend on campaigns. Television advertising is cheap. And the whole state, not including the prairie dogs, doesn't have the population of Indianapolis.
But the distances across these plains are vast, and South Dakotans take pride in knowing their politicians face to face. They expect candidates to show up in person, preferably driving their own cars. And they don't like nasty campaigns.
The ads in this race paid for by groups like the Sierra Club, the National Right to Life Committee, and the Club for Growth have been relentless and hard-edged for months. This week, the national parties stepped up their own Senate ad campaigns. Locals say they are tired of it.
"People just aren't paying attention any more. The ads come on, the mind goes blank," says Mike Coyle, a retired truck driver at the Belle Inn truck stop in Belle Fourche. The state has been deluged in political advertising for months, much of it negative. Still, he's planning to vote this year, but hasn't decided between "Tim or John."
"I'm registered a Republican, but I just try to figure out who can do the most to help South Dakota. We're years behind the rest of the nation," he adds.
In a poor state where most people don't earn much more than the minimum wage, Washington looms large in everyday life even in nonelection years. Federal dollars fund roads, water projects, retirement, and farm subsidies. When Jim Palmer's son hit a log and mangled the motor on his boat, he blamed the Army Corps of Engineers for releasing too much water (and prize game fish) to bail out barge operators downriver.
"They control the river, when they don't know anything about it," says Mr. Palmer, a former railroad engineer who now lives in Mobridge. "The Oahe dam is the greatest thing that ever happened in this area, and now they're screwing it all up. The bait shops and gas stations are going out of business," he adds.
Johnson tells Mobridge residents gathered at a campaign barbecue in the senior center that he'll do something about the Corps.
The Missouri River, which runs down the center of the state, is the boundary most locals use to describe two different cultures in their state: East River is farmers, row crops (and enough rain to grow them), meatpackers, and Citibank. West River is ranchers, cattle, windswept buttes, empty missile silos, and hours on the road without an open gas station. West River votes Republican, while East River produces populist Democrats, like former presidential candidate George McGovern, as well as Senators Daschle and Johnson.
Thune hails from West River and is a rising star in South Dakota politics, with flash to burn. A former basketball star, he bounds easily along a parade route in Wagner, darting in and out of a small-town crowd to meet voters while dodging flying eggs and water balloons from nearby floats. He likes to "look them in the eye and ask for their vote." Last month, he and his family covered 4,000 miles in a bus tour across the state to meet voters where they are.
"John's a talent that only comes along once in a generation," says Ted Hustead, the president of Wall Drug, located just off I-80 before you drop down into the Badlands. Mr. Hustead's grandparents put Wall Drug on the map in the 1930s by blanketing the state and places as far away as Kenya and Antarctica with signs offering free ice water. He knows marketing, and says the only way Thune could be defeated in this race is "pork."
In their first debate last month, both Johnson and Thune often referred to what they have brought home to the state because of their ties to either Daschle or President Bush. Lose Tim, and you might also lose Tom, his majority, and all that has meant for the state, Democrats say. Republicans counter that with John, you also gain the ear of the White House. And perhaps Tom will still be majority leader, some add.
One test of who can deliver for this state is Washington's response to the drought that parched fields to powder here this summer. When President Bush came to Mt. Rushmore last month, he didn't offer the disaster assistance that many had expected. Instead, the president told South Dakotans that spending curbs were needed to revive the economy. It didn't sit well.
"A lot of people are going out of business," said Johnson. That may be why one of the first items that Daschle scheduled for Senate action after the August recess was a plan for an additional $6 billion in emergency drought relief for farmers and ranchers. Daschle and Johnson claimed credit. Now, Thune is trying to pass some version of drought relief in the GOP-controlled House. The White House wants drought relief to come out of the record $190 billion, 10-year farm bill passed this year.
"Thune was damaged by Bush's refusal to give South Dakota drought aid. It indicates that he won't have much influence," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, who last week adjusted his call in this election from "toss-up" to "the thinnest possible edge" for Johnson.
Thune insists that his campaign is closest to local South Dakota values, and that voters won't hold the Bush's stance on the drought against him. "I don't think South Dakota's principles are for sale," he says.
In the end, this vote will come down to about 10,000 households, and "both campaigns know which ones," says Jennifer Duffy, who handicaps Senate races for The Cook Political Report in Washington.
That's why the state Democratic Party has been mounting an intensive voter registration drive on the state's nine Indian reservations. Organizers predict that at least 10,000 of these new voters will turn out on Nov. 5, which this year is also the polling day for tribal elections. If so, it will mark a breakthrough in South Dakota politics, where native American turnout has been low.
The drive worries some GOP workers. "They have brought all kinds of people from outside the state to work full time to get out the vote on the reservations, and hearsay is that they will use absentee ballots.... It's not right," says Mary Van Loh of the Republican Party in Minnehaha County.
That could give Democrats an edge, given that counties here with Indian reservations regularly rank as the poorest in the nation. Thune, who says he has talked with tribal leaders who say Democrats in Congress have not delivered much change, won't concede the ground. Democrats "may be surprised who they vote for."