The farm crisis dominates US Senate races in the Dakotas

From his campaign van, Kent Conrad sees a revolt brewing in this quiet North Dakota community. ``Something very dramatic is happening here,'' says the Democratic candidate for the United States Senate. ``I think the election is going to be decided in the small towns.''

Small Midwestern towns are grabbing a lot of attention these days. Republicans appeal to their conservative roots. Democrats hope to capitalize on the slumping rural economy. These trends are clear in two Senate races in the Dakotas.

But voter opinion is hard to determine. The polls fluctuate, much as sentiment about the region's economy fluctuates.

To hear Mr. Conrad tell it, all of rural America is headed for disaster.

``We've got an economy that's going the wrong direction,'' he tells a small Beulah, N.D., group munching on hot dogs. The crowd gives Conrad a standing ovation, but not everyone in Beulah is convinced.

``The economy here? It's hard to gauge,'' says Ken Beauchamp, managing editor of the weekly Beulah Beacon. ``There's not a gloom and doom thing here,'' he adds. The question is how to keep the economy growing.

But the region's fate is uncertain. A nearby coal gasification plant, which employs 1,000 workers, may shut down because of low fuel prices.

``We haven't got the foggiest about what's going to happen,'' says Dave Smette, school superintendent of nearby Hazen. The slump in energy and farming may well decide this race between Conrad and his Republican opponent, Sen. Mark Andrews, Mr. Smette adds.

In South Dakota, farming is also on the minds of many voters.

``I don't think either party is going to solve the problem,'' says William Daniel, a Wentworth, S.D., farmer who has felt the financial squeeze. ``No one has come up with an answer.''

Nonetheless, Sen. James Abdnor and his opponent, US Rep. Thomas A. Daschle, have battled hard to present themselves as the sole friend of the farmer. When Senator Abdnor, the Republican, suggested in June that farmers might have to sell their crops below cost for a while, the Daschle campaign charged that Abdnor supported low farm prices. In a counterattack, Abdnor played up his own farm background, saying his comments were taken out of context.

``They've played this thing of the farm economy to the hilt,'' says Rodney Foster, president of the South Dakota Livestock Feeders Association. ``Nobody knows exactly which way to turn, because the stability's not there.''

Nearly everyone predicts close Senate races in both states. After trailing Daschle, Republican Abdnor has taken a lead in some recent South Dakota polls. To the north, state Treasurer Conrad has come from nowhere to pull even with Andrews.

``I think the race is a tossup yet,'' says Lloyd Omdahl, a political science professor and pollster at the University of North Dakota. Political analysts say much of the poll support for the candidates is soft.

That Democrats are running credible races in these conservative states is a sign that not all is well with the farm economy. ``I think it's agriculture that to a great degree has loosened up their minds on who they're going to vote for,'' Mr. Omdahl says.

The rural picture is further complicated because not all farmers are in trouble. To some, the consolidation under way in rural America is inevitable.

``I think this election has gotten too hung up on the 10 to 15 percent [of farmers] that can't survive,'' says Boyd Waara, Republican chairman of Haakon County, one of the most Republican counties in South Dakota. ``There's a lot of dissatisfaction with the farm program, and Abdnor will be hurt by that. But at the same time, they're spending more money on the farm program.'' That record government spending may placate the majority of farmers.

In the end, it may not be rural voters but the rural concerns of Dakota's urbanites that determine these elections, analysts suggest.

``Even as teachers, we're looking at the farm economy,'' says Marvin Connell, a physics teacher in Grand Forks, N.D. ``Whatever makes the farm economy go makes the schools go.''

``If we can be shown that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that would make a big impression,'' Mr. Connell says.

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