THE most surprising election results from South Dakota were not on the Democratic side, where there were five major candidates, but on the Republican side, where there was only one.
President Bush, opposed only by a slate of uncommitted delegates, got 69 percent of the vote. Analysts immediately declared that to be a weak showing. The uncommitted slate got 31 percent.
"That's a horrible sign," says John Sears, a former campaign aide to Ronald Reagan. The South Dakota vote indicates that 31 percent of Republicans there "don't want to see [Bush] nominated again," Mr. Sears says.
Torie Clark, a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, concedes, "We need to work harder."
Sears says that economic pessimism has grown so strong in the United States that if the presidential election were held today, "I think he [Bush] would lose." He told a breakfast meeting with reporters on Wednesday that "it's basically the president running against the president," and right now the economic situation would beat him.
Patrick Buchanan, the conservative commentator who is opposing Mr. Bush in next week's Georgia primary, vows that if he wins as much as 30 percent of the vote, he will press ahead with his insurgent GOP campaign.
Mr. Buchanan, who has jabbed Bush repeatedly on his broken 1988 pledge to oppose tax increases, could seriously wound the president prior to the fall showdown with Democrats.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska won his first victory, gaining about 40 percent of the vote in South Dakota. That win promises that Senator Kerrey will push ahead into Georgia and Colorado, two states where he will try for impressive showings next Tuesday.
But South Dakota's results could hurt the other Midwesterner, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who finished second among Democrats with 25 percent.
The next two weeks are pivotal because hundreds of convention delegates will be chosen in a rapid-fire series of Republican and Democratic primaries and caucuses. All the candidates need heavy infusions of funds to wage their campaigns via television.
However, without a stronger showing since his initial victory in the Iowa caucuses, Senator Harkin may have trouble maintaining financial support in the days ahead.
Another surprise out of South Dakota was former Sen. Paul Tsongas's weak fourth-place finish with 10 percent. Mr. Tsongas appears to be getting only a moderate boost out of his New Hampshire primary victory on Feb. 18. He urgently needs a victory March 3 in Maryland.