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Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 23:25 GMT
South Dakota's Senate battle
The prairie state of South Dakota is an unlikely site for one of the fiercest political battles of this mid-term election. But as BBC Washington correspondent Nick Bryant explains, the race which at present is too close to call is critical as Republicans and Democrats fight for control of Congress.

The Senate race in South Dakota, where the corn is as high as a candidate's eye, pits a political show-horse against a political workhorse.

The sitting Senator, Democrat Tim Johnson, is a tireless grafter, whose campaign slogan - Working Hard, Making a Difference - is much like the man himself: uninspired but believable.

Senator Tim Johnson campaigns
Tim Johnson: "Uninspired but believable"
The 55-year-old is a serious-minded senator from a serious-minded state.

A politician who much prefers to pour over the minutiae of legislation behind the closed doors of a conference committee on Capitol Hill rather than manufacture the kind of synthetic charm that's needed on the campaign trail.

Republican John Thune, who for the past six years has served as South Dakota's only congressman, could hardly be more different.

With slicked-back hair, a Colgate smile and turbo-charged charisma, he looks like an American politician should.

Open in new window : Voters' views
US residents tell us their views

Restless and ambitious, he clearly views a seat in the Senate as a stepping stone to the presidency.

The 41-year-old was hand-picked by George W Bush to fight one of the most fiercely-contested races in the country.

South Dakota is central to Republican plans to win back control of the Senate. And the prairie and ranching communities of America's fifth-smallest state are providing the unlikely setting for a bruising political fight.

Proxy war

There are two main reasons why the race is so fascinating - two intriguing plot lines which have made the Mount Rushmore state the focus so much national attention.
Tom Daschle, Democrat leader in the Senate
This feels like a proxy war between Tom Daschle and President Bush

First, the race has the feel of a proxy war between the country's two most powerful politicians: the president and his arch-nemesis, Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota's favourite son.

In the 2000 presidential election, the president won the state by over 20 points, and hopes his popularity will rub off on John Thune.

Ideally, the White House would like this race to be a referendum about President Bush's handling of America's war on terrorism.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are reminding voters that, with a South Dakotan as majority leader, this sparsely-populated state is punching way above its weight in Washington.

If they voted for Mr Thune, the Democrats would likely lose their one-seat majority, and Daschle would lose his power.

Moreover, if Tim Johnson, the one-term incumbent, were ousted, South Dakota would relinquish its much-coveted seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

As South Dakotans well know, members of the Appropriations Committee are the main dispensers of congressional pork, and Senator Johnson's defeat could therefore deprive the state of millions of federal dollars.

In the past year alone, he claims to have funded some 82 separate projects.

Iraq an issue?

The other reason why South Dakota has attracted so much interest is because of the Republican's attempt to insert Iraq into the race.
John Thune campaign advertisement
John Thune has tried to capitalise on President Bush's popularity

In a controversial television attack advertisement, which charged Tim Johnson with being soft on defence, the Thune campaign used images of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda terrorists to drive home the point.

The Republicans have also highlighted Senator Johnson's opposition to the Gulf War in 1991, which he voted against as a congressman.

Even though he voted for the recent congressional resolution authorising the use of force against Baghdad, the Republicans suspect he is vulnerable on the issue.

Trouble is, Mr Johnson has an ace up his sleeve. He happens to be the only lawmaker on Capitol Hill whose son fought in Afghanistan.

Brooks Johnson, a member of the elite 101st Airborne, might also see action in Iraq. So in a state where voters typically react badly to negative campaigning, the Thune advertisement could easily backfire.

But the truth is that the war on terrorism seems to be playing only on the fringes of voters' minds.

A recent poll conducted by the state's leading newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, showed that the "showdown with Baghdad" didn't even rank amongst the top five issues.

Voters are voicing much louder concerns about pensions, the cost of prescription drugs, the economy, education and drought relief.

Is the race in South Dakota a referendum on President Bush? No chance. It provides another timely reminder that "all politics is local" - that every single contest has its own unique dynamic.

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The BBC's Nick Bryant in South Dakota
'The drum beat of war against Iraq is drowned out by the talk of issues closer to home'

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