Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota, has never had an easy victory in the 24 years he's been running for political office. But this year the Methodist minister's son and one-time history professor is facing the toughest re-election race of his career.
Senator McGovern has been the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee's main target for defeat. His liberal voting record and support of federal funding for abortion have been under almost constant attack in South Dakota over the last year-and- a-half by the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC).
McGovern managed to weather a tough Democratic primary fight staged by Right-to-Life candidate Larry Schumaker. His general election opponent is Republican Rep. James Abdnor, who until recently has had a fairly comfortable lead over the senator in most polls.
Representative Abdnor has proved he can attract broad state support as a former state senator and lieutenant governor and as a four-term member of the US House of Representatives. Owner of a farm in Kennebec, S. D., he puts heavy stress on his conservative voting record and his frequent return visits to the state from Washington.
Abdnor, considered likely to benefit from Ronald Reagan's strong lead in South Dakota, argues that McGovern has lost touch with his constituents. The congressman also says his voting record more accurately reflects the views of South Dakotans.
A gentlemanly manner and low-key friendliness helps Abdnor with voters who want to elect a down-to-earth candidate who speaks their own language, say political analysts.
But such pluses do not add up to an automatic win.
Farmers, who account for about 30 percent of the state's total vote, historically have been part of the South Dakota's Democratic coalition. Any anger with President Carter is not expected to be vented on McGovern, a former Ted Kennedy supporter and early opponent of the administration's embargo of grain sales to the Soviet Union.
McGovern stresses his experience and influence in Washington. He notes pointedly that if he goes, so does his No. 2 position on the Senate Agriculture Committee, at a time when a new four-year farm bill is to be drafted.
Though describing himself as a "liberal," the senator, who ranks third on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supports development of the B-1 bomber [ which he once opposed] as a replacement for the aging B-52, as well as increased military pay and benefits.
McGovern has been parrying anti-abortion attacks by insisting that single issues should never be allowed to decide elections and by stressing his own personal opposition to abortion.
His campaign, widely regarded as more professional and better organized than his opponent's, stresses service to constituents in response to the charge of having lost touch.
"One of McGovern's long suits . . . is that he's accessible and that his staff provides prompt, effective service," notes Loren Carlson, professor of political science at the University of South Dakota. "That may not matter in some places, but it's very important in a state like South Dakota where everybody knows everybody."
The incumbent has been taking a few gentle digs at his opponent in recent weeks. McGovern radio ads refer to ABdnor as "a nice guy, but . . .", implying he is not up to the job. And the ads suggest that the congressman draws much of his campaign money from oil and business donors, the chief beneficiaries of his proposed tax cuts.
McGovern also has indirectly suggested that his opponent's slight speech impediment and lack of articulateness (readily acknowledged by Abdnor's most ardent supporters) could prove a handicap on the Senate floor where debating ability can be important. Abdnor has refused McGovern's invitation to debate.
One of the liveliest campaign issues has centered on campaign finances. Abdnor's forces insists that McGovern's successful direct-mail fund-raising efforts give him an unfair edge. The McGovern forces say they have spent almost half of the $1.2 million raised to date.
"If you add up all the independent committees that have been spending money against McGovern, there's a very good chance we'll be outspent by them all," counters McGovern press spokesman Jeff Brockelsby.