Sioux Falls, S.D. -- AT THE LOCAL Disabled American Veterans hall here the other night, newly declared 1992 presidential candidate Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska was asked about the importance of South Dakota's presidential primary next Feb. 25.
"South Dakota as I see it is apt to be one of the top two primaries on the Democratic side, a very important primary," he said. "I view it as a wide-open race."
Ordinarily that comment, linking the South Dakota primary with the high-profile, traditional kickoff primary in New Hampshire one week earlier, might be dismissed as little more than throwing a bone to this small prairie state. But two circumstances this time around offer at least the prospect that the presidential primary here will grab a larger share of the national spotlight than usual.
The first is that the traditional first presidential nomination test, the precinct caucuses in neighboring Iowa next Feb. 10, may well be robbed of its customary significance because an Iowan, Sen. Tom Harkin, is among the Democratic presidential candidates. Harkin is all but assured of a sweeping victory in his state, so that other contenders may ignore the Iowa caucuses altogether or give them short shrift.
The second circumstance is the fact that South Dakota consequently offers the best early test in their home region for both Kerrey and Harkin, and an opportunity for Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas as well.
In any event, South Dakota Democrats are planning to make the most of the situation to grab a larger role in their party's nomination process than ever before. While it's not likely that the outcome of the South Dakota primary will anoint one candidate or drive out others, it could be an early element in establishing the pecking order in a field of lesser-known Democratic candidates next winter.
On the 1992 political calendar, South Dakota will be the fourth state to hold some form of national convention delegate selection and the second to conduct a primary, after the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary and caucuses in Maine on Feb. 23. A week after the South Dakota primary, the candidates will face voters in Minnesota, Colorado and Idaho, making South Dakota a convenient stopover. (Maryland also votes on that day).
Harkin recognized this prospect early and, according to Steve Hildebrand, co-director of the South Dakota state party, has lined up 19 of 42 Democratic state legislators as well as two of the state's four highest elected officials, Curt Johnspn, commissioner of schools and public lands, and Ken Stofferhan, the public utilities commissioner. He also has a paid organizer, State Sen. Pam Nelson, already at work here.
The other two leading Democrats in the state, Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Tim Johnson, are up for re-election in 1992 and are not taking sides. On the occasion of Kerrey's visit, Daschle sent a glowing letter of encouragement to Kerrey that at first blush read like a ringing endorsement. But it came after he had offered similarly enthusiastic encouragement to Harkin on his earlier visit.
Kerrey does have in his corner, however, one of the most popular Democrats in the state in Ted Muenster, the party's unsuccessful candidate for the Senate in 1988, a business and political consultant here.
In the hope of attracting the full field of Democrats to South Dakota, the state party has invited all declared and prospective candidates to a steak fry in Sioux Falls on Nov. 23, and a party-sponsored debate or forum is planned for January.
An obvious advantage for both Harkin and Kerrey is that they can easily shuttle volunteers into South Dakota from their home states to canvass voters. Harkin may have an additional advantage in that, according to Hildebrand, he has already done considerable grass-roots organizing in neighboring Minnesota and can tap that resource of volunteer workers as well. Minnesota's freshman Sen. Paul Wellstone, a liberal compatriot of Harkin's, has endorsed him and is rallying his forces to Harkin's cause.
South Dakota held a similarly early primary in 1988 but created only a ripple in news coverage when Rep. Richard Gephardt beat out Gov. Michael Dukakis with a late television attack. The highly competitive Iowa caucuses that year, won by Gephardt, had already drawn the bulk of press attention in the region. South Dakota Democrats clearly hope it will be different this time around.