High Stakes on the Dakota Plains

If a visitor to South Dakota desires a crash course in the nuances of provincial prairie politics, all one has to do is stand on the banks of the Mighty Mo and pivot the head from east to west.

Stretched out from Pierre, the state capital, clear to the border with Minnesota, are section after section of pheasant-laden cornfields, small family farms, and the grandchildren of Scandinavian immigrants who speak in a thick Midwestern brogue. The heart of what some consider Tim Johnson country.

In the other direction, from the Missouri River to Wyoming, are endless buttons of high plains sagebrush, cattle ranches, timber and minerals on federal lands in the Black Hills, and an economy based on natural-resource extraction that is to the liking of Larry Pressler.

Tomorrow, voters from both sides of South Dakota will sort out the topographical dichotomy by selecting a US senator who will help guide their sparsely populated state into the next century.

The choice is between three-term incumbent Republican Senator Pressler and five-term Democratic Representative Johnson in what figures to be one of the most closely watched races on election night.

The two leading presidential candidates made stops here in the precious last days (Bob Dole on Saturday, President Clinton today) of their campaigns to bolster Pressler and Johnson, respectively.

Democrats see a chance to topple a powerful GOP Senate chairman. Pressler has been a key Dole ally in the Senate, but polls show him as vulnerable. His opponent, Johnson, has represented the sole House seat in the state and has won each of his terms with at least 59 percent of the vote.

By the time it's all over, Pressler forces will have spent an estimated $5 million while Johnson's campaign total will surpass $3 million, making this contest one of the most expensive, per capita, ever waged in the history of the Senate. South Dakotans also bemoan the fact that, by the standard of civility in their state, this race will be remembered as one of the nastiest.

In the modern rules of politics, however, such is the case when the value of one seat becomes leveraged because it may be crucial, nationally, in determining the balance of power on Capitol Hill.

Despite the liberal legacy that George McGovern cultivated in the 1960s and '70s, South Dakotans, where Republicans outnumber Democrats, tend to be more conservative the closer they live to the edge of the Mountain Time Zone.

An issue on the minds of all voters is how to stem the tide of young people who are fleeing the state because they cannot find good jobs. Part of the drain is tied to inheritance laws and the economics of farming that make it difficult for parents to pass their agrarian lifestyle down to their children.

Both Pressler and Johnson agree that changes need to occur with the current capital-gains codes, but Pressler has voted to provide tax relief for Americans who earn over $100,000 a year, and Johnson has pressed for tax breaks to the middle class and deductions on the cost of college tuition and for couples buying their first home.

"The differences between these men lie philosophically in how they approach the role of government and the degree to which it should provide a safety net in tough economic times," says South Dakota's other senator, Tom Daschle, a Democrat. "Pressler is supportive of the corporate structure and big business while [Johnson] is an advocate of family farms and working-class families, which are so much of what our state is about."

Pressler critics say he is "aloof." His public persona seems incongruent with his erudite background as a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Harvard Law School. On summer sojourns from Washington, he drives around the state on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Friends say Pressler is a bright introvert still trying to find his way in an extroverted profession.

Pressler endorses Dole's promise of a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut but is not a garden-variety conservative. He was the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress and during the 1980s was one of the state's most popular elected officials.

His challenger, whom he calls "ultraliberal," has a reputation as a feisty, meat-and-potatoes representative of middle American values. Earlier this year, Johnson heartened voters when he abandoned his campaigning and considered quitting to spend time with his wife, Barbara, who was diagnosed with cancer. He returned to the race only at her insistence.

Pressler is the first South Dakota senator in 47 years to chair a major Senate committee - Commerce. He led the overhaul of federal telecommunications policy that has direct ramifications for rural states by emphasizing competition and deregulation with long-distance phone service, the Internet, and cable TV.

Pressler says the law will create 1 million new jobs nationally by the year 2003. Johnson counters that the net result will be higher telephone and cable rates for South Dakotans and the eventual rise of out-of-state conglomerates that monopolize access to service.

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