SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Sen. Bob Kerrey's impressive victory in the South Dakota presidential primary creates an ironic situation in the campaign for the Democratic nomination.
In the four states that have held primaries or caucuses so far, three of the five principal candidates have won at least one - Kerry,former Sen,Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire and Maine,and Sen Tom Harkin in his native Iowa.
Another, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, has scored a near-victory, in the Maine caucuses. Yet the fifth -- winless Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas -- is regarded as the man to beat as the campaign turns south.
The reason is that, of the 22 states holding contests in the next two weeks, nine are in Clinton's home region, where he is generally expected to dominate and finally emerge as the Democratic front-runner.
Kerrey needed his victory in South Dakota to give him credibility as the field heads south, and is probably positioned better than any of the other challengers to Clinton to benefit if the South's special affinity to patriotic issues and the military causes voters to turn against Clinton.
The Arkansas governor so far appears to have survived fatal political erosion from the allegations that he went to uncommon lengths to stay out of the draft during the Vietnam war. But Kerrey, as a Medal of Honor winner wounded in that war, will be an attractive alternative to Southern Democrats put off by Clinton's explanations.
One of Kerrey's chief political aides, Bill Shore, says South Dakota was important for Kerrey because it dealt him in on "the symbolic phase" of the nomination fight, in which simply winning brings recognition, even in this state that has only 19 convention delegates.
But as the competition moves on, Shore notes, the focus will be on the accumulation of delegates toward the 2,143 needed for nomination, so what Kerrey must do now is pick up delegates, not necessarily win states through the intensive period of the next two weeks.
Over the next two weeks, there will be contests in large states outside the South where Kerrey and Tsongas particularly have a chance to accumulate delegates to counteract whatever success Clinton has in the South. Texas, which sends 214 delegates to the convention, and Florida, which sends 160, are obviously the big prizes, but Tsongas can look to Massachusetts with 107 delegates and Kerrey is going after Minnesota's 87, principally against Harkin and Colorado's 54 against the field.
If Clinton can be checked in the South, the competition then moves to the industrial North, with major primaries in Illinois (183 delegates) and Michigan (148) on March 17, and New York (268) and Pennsylvania (188) in April.
While Kerrey was getting a boost in South Dakota, President Bush was getting another message of voter dissatisfaction in the Republican primary. The Bush-Quayle campaign will dismiss as meaningless the 31 percent vote for an uncommitted slate in an uncontested primary, but voters clearly were sending a message.
GOP challenger Patrick Buchanan missed the South Dakota filing date and a court declined to put him on the ballot, but the Republican voters followed the lead of those who gave Buchanan 37 percent in New Hampshire. In that state, the White House blamed the vote on the recession that has produced an unemployment rate there of nearly 8 percent. But it is only 3 percent in South Dakota, indicating more bothers Republican voters about Bush than jobs.
Bush has never been overly popular in South Dakota. He ran third behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in the 1988 primary and beat Michael Dukakis by only six points in the general election. Any way you slice it, though, a 31 percent vote for uncommitted against an incumbent president doesn't augur well for him.