THE South Dakota primary was a quick, tough lesson in regional politics. Last week's winner, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, found that his broad message of structural economic change, coupled with an admittedly slim grasp of agricultural issues, barely made an echo on the Great Plains. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, however, found that pledges to protect the family farm and sharp jabs at the ag-ignorance of opponents garnered 40 percent of South Dakota's Democrats.
With this win, Mr. Kerrey revived a failing candidacy. He now has some steam heading for the next round of primaries.
The other regional favorite, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, came in 20 points behind Kerrey. His populist message could fade for good unless he pulls out a victory next week in Minnesota's caucuses.
Mr. Tsongas, meanwhile, will focus on Maryland, the border state where he hopes to prove he has appeal outside the Northeast. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas slightly trails Tsongas in polls out of Maryland. Mr. Clinton's hopes, however, focus further south on the states participating in Super Tuesday March 10.
Apart from re-sorting the Democrats, South Dakotans sent another warning to President Bush. The 30 percent of the state's Republican voters who opted for "noncommitted" registered a discontent with the current administration that may be duplicated in other regions. Particularly disturbing political soundings, for the Bush team, have come from California, a state with the largest number of convention delegates and deep economic troubles.
Regional lumps taken by the candidates will mold a greater awareness of what's needed to address the concerns of all Americans in 1992. It's still a widely varied land, though what's said in one place is inevitably heard everywhere. Consistency and integrity - which risk putting off a certain number of voters - will have basic appeal in a year when Americans are looking for fresh direction.