Former Sen. Paul Tsongas, fresh from his victory in the New Hampshire primary, stood in the back of the cattle arena at the Sioux Falls, S.D., stockyard, listening to an auctioneer rattle off bids on some choice beef on the hoof that had been herded into the barn.
After the lot of cattle had been sold, the auctioneer introduced Tsongas to the assembled buyers,a weathered bunch of cattlemen who turned with curiosity to view this newly celebrated New Englander. They applauded politely as he waved awkwardly to them and then they went back to their business.
Tsongas, dressed in a bright blue winter jacket and sports shirt, nevertheless seemed incongruously out of place, but then he often does as the candidate of non-charisma who prides himself in talking sense to the American voter. Here among the moans and smells of future steak dinners, however, Tsongas didn't even try to make a campaign pitch to the burly buyers and farmhands whose attention was riveted on the auction.
Instead, he settled for a brief news conference in another nearby barn called the pig arena, where hogs are similarly auctioned off. Asked why he was campaigning in South Dakota, a state where two Plains states senators, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, were expected to have tomorrow's Democratic presidential primary all to themselves, Tsongas said he wanted "to show the flag" outside his home region to prove that his ideas for economic recovery would play elsewhere.
He said he believed his pro-business, anti-protectionist message, without Japan-bashing, would appeal to farmers and raisers of livestock when made to understand how free trade can benefit them. The clear inference was that both Kerrey and Harkin, who have criticized Japanese trade practices, were acting against the best interests of South Dakota's farm economy.
While acknowledging that he was not as well-informed on agriculture as either Kerrey or Harkin, Tsongas said "I think I can listen better." But he had precious little opportunity to do much listening in his brief stockyards visit, beyond hearing the lowing laments of the cattle who sounded as if they understood their imminent fate. Television cameras, however, were present in goodly numbers, ready to convey Tsongas' stockyards visit to South Dakota viewers.
Tsongas' visit to the state where his father-in-law is a college football Hall of Famer is somewhat of a gamble, as is his running of television ads over the final weekend. If he does not fare well here after making some effort, he is likely to hear more of the reading that he is only a regional candidate.
Gov. Bill Clinton, the New Hampshire runner-up, is also airing television ads over the final weekend and has mailed copies of his plan for economic recovery to 40,000 households in a state with 180,000 registered Democrats. Clinton, too, risks revival of questions about his electability and the "character issue" if he fares poorly.
The limited activities of Tsongas and Clinton here indicate the primary may be more than the simple elimination contest between Kerrey and Harkin that it has been billed as. They should run one-two in either order, based on the time and organizational efforts each has put into South Dakota. But it appears unlikely that the loser will quit the campaign as a result -- not immediately anyway.
Harkin is well organized for the Minnesota caucuses that take place on March 3, and Kerrey is expected to focus next on Colorado, which votes the same day. The key question is whether either will have the financial resources to continue if he loses in his home region Tuesday.
In this heavily farm-oriented state,the perception of which has been the stronger farm advocate could make the difference for one or the other in the primary -- unless Tsongas or Clinton surprise.