KWAME HOLMAN: At six feet four inches, John Thune appears even taller against the flatlands of South Dakota. In many of the small towns where he has campaigned, only the grain storage silos loom larger.
SPOKESMAN: I appreciate it.
KWAME HOLMAN: John Thune might be the most recognizable candidate in the state. President Bush is betting that will translate into votes.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: For the sake of South Dakota, for the sake of our country, John Thune should be the next United States Senator. ( Cheers and applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: John Thune, Republican candidate for the Senate, doesn't deny that President Bush personally intervened and talked him out of making a run for governor. The popular four-term Congressman could have won easily, but with Republicans needing to pick up just one seat to retake control of the Senate, Thune accepted the gamble and challenged the Democratic incumbent, Tim Johnson.
REP. JOHN THUNE: Well, nobody forced me into this. I mean, this was a decision that I made with my wife and my family. We took a long, hard look at the governor's race, and it's an attractive job in South Dakota for a lot of reasons. But at the end of the day, you kind of have to look at what your abilities are, what your God-given gifts are, and figure out how you can put them to their highest and best use for the people that you want to represent, and I believe that that's in the United States Senate.
KWAME HOLMAN: Thune already was familiar with the campaign trail. As South Dakota's lone Congressman, he had crisscrossed the state many times in search of votes. Three-quarters of the population lives east of the Missouri River, heavily concentrated in and around Sioux Falls. 325 miles to the west is Rapid City, South Dakota's conservative base. We caught up with Thune a week ago, traveling across the central plains on a whistle-stop tour to Pierre, the state capital, which included a stop in St. Lawrence, population 223.
WOMAN: That's a super train.
REP. JOHN THUNE: That is neat.
KWAME HOLMAN: South Dakotans are registered solidly Republican. They gave President Bush 60 percent of the vote two years ago and haven't supported a Democrat for President since Lyndon Johnson. Thune's close relationship with the President has been his major message.
REP. JOHN THUNE: We have to do everything we can to get our vote out because the stakes are high and the future of this country is really dependent on our ability to make a change here in South Dakota and give this President a team he can work with in the United States Senate.
KWAME HOLMAN: But South Dakota's independent-minded voters also elected Democrat Tom Daschle to the Senate three times. As majority leader, Daschle has become the President's chief political nemesis. And six years ago, South Dakotans sent another Democrat to the Senate, Tim Johnson.
SEN. TIM JOHNSON: I'm proud of the broad-based Republican independent support I've had over the years in our state. South Dakotans are easily back and forth in the ballot. They're independent-minded that way. I wouldn't be here were it not for strong Republican support from some of the most prominent Republicans in the state, in fact.
KWAME HOLMAN: We met up with Tim Johnson, wife Barbara, and daughter Kelsey rushing to a community meeting in the town of Gregory, population 1,300. They were an hour late, making the decision to drive, rather than fly from a previous campaign appearance two days after Senator Wellstone, his wife, and daughter were killed in a plane crash.
SEN. TIM JOHNSON: Thank you for your patience here. We came roaring out of Yankton, and we ran into some thick fog and one thing led to another.
KWAME HOLMAN: Johnson tossed away his traditional campaign pitch, but did stress how advantageously Daschle and he had positioned South Dakota.
SEN. TIM JOHNSON: We've had very distinguished people from both parties in the U.S. Senate before, but in the past year and a half, we find ourselves with the majority leader and my seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. That's a one-two punch frankly that our state has never had before.
WOMAN: I'm wondering if you can cover for us what your position is on funding for education for small towns like Gregory?
SEN. TIM JOHNSON: When we come back here after the election, we're going to have to address the issue of can we get additional dollars over last year on some key areas, and education has to be one.
KWAME HOLMAN: And so this Senate race, which even on election eve political handicappers are calling a toss-up, has come down to a question of clout and which kind is best for South Dakotans.
SEN. TIM JOHNSON: And so I think it's a matter of making sure that people understand what's at stake here. My seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Energy Committee, things I've been able to do for health care, education. Tom Daschle's majority leadership, which he holds on the strength of one vote, there is a lot at stake for South Dakota. I think we can make a case and have made a case that our delegation is one of the most powerful Senate delegations in America right now.
REP. JOHN THUNE: With Senator Daschle, obviously you've got a leader among the Democrats, but right now South Dakota has what is essentially a one-sided team in the Senate, and I think we need a team with muscle on both sides of the aisle. I think South Dakota's most effective, most powerful combination is a team that can work not just with the Democrats, but also with the Republicans in the Senate and with the White House to get things done for the state.
KWAME HOLMAN: Having recruited John Thune to run for Senate, President Bush and his advisors wanted to protect the seat Thune gave up in the narrowly divided House. And so they recruited Bill Janklow, South Dakota's four- term governor, to run for Congress.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: For the sake of South Dakota and for the sake of the country, Bill Janklow needs to be the next United States Congressman. ( Cheers and applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: Janklow was convinced to postpone plans to retire from politics once his term as governor had expired. At a Rotary Club luncheon last week in Sioux Falls, Janklow said he was looking forward to the challenge of going to Washington, where politicians seem to have trouble getting things done.
GOV. WILLIAM JANKLOW: When they say in Washington they're going to do something, nobody listens. They get the publicity and they never do anything because it's a different standard. Daschle, Johnson, Thune, any one of the other 98 Senators or 430 other House members, they could all give you a list of what needs to be done. And they always have somebody to blame on why they can't get it done.
KWAME HOLMAN: Governor, you know members of Congress and you know how things work there. Can you really expect to change the way things work?
GOV. WILLIAM JANKLOW: I don't know. Look, all I can do is try and make a difference. That's all. I can't tell you I'm going to go to Washington and change the place, because I always wanted to go to Washington and change the place. But then the things you heard me talk about are the things I talk about every day in Washington, and, two, I tell people I don't think they ought to be going home until their work is done, until they work a little bit harder, and I mean that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Party officials imagined Janklow would glide to victory, but the governor has faced an unexpectedly tough challenge from a political novice.
STEPHANIE HERSETH: Hi, I'm Stephanie Herseth.
KWAME HOLMAN: We caught up with Stephanie Herseth at the beauty parlor. She visited three in Sioux Falls that day. Eunice Christopherson, a registered nurse, talked about the need for a prescription drug benefit for seniors.
EUNICE CHRISTOPHERSON: We've had several come lately who have said that when they are at home they've had to decide whether they are going to eat or buy their pills. So they take maybe half the amount of medication they are supposed to.
STEPHANIE HERSETH: Or they're choosing...
EUNICE CHRISTOPHERSON: Or they're choosing.
STEPHANIE HERSETH: And that's not the way it's supposed to be.
KWAME HOLMAN: Herseth is 32 years old-- the granddaughter of a former governor, a high school sports star, and scholar who graduated from Georgetown University and law school in Washington with high honors. But now she's running for Congress and polls show the first-time candidate running even against her well-known opponent.
STEPHANIE HERSETH: A lot of the older voters that are of my grandfather's generation are responding to my candidacy because they know that they've seen their daughters or sons or their grandkids have to leave South Dakota or not be able to come back when they want to to start their families, because we don't have the economic opportunities that we need to have for them to come home. And so they know that I'm a young person in South Dakota that spent some time outside of South Dakota, but am committed to our future and want to be a part of it and think that I can make a difference by helping South Dakota and serving them in Washington. Voters younger than me know that I'm not far removed from their experience of the concerns about paying back student loans, about finding that good job, about setting yourself on a course for your future career path.
KWAME HOLMAN: It can take hours of travel to reach even a few voters in South Dakota. The state's population is 750,000, about ten people per square mile. They seem genuinely appreciative of the effort the candidates have made to visit with them, but during our visit, South Dakotans weren't nearly as excited about the upcoming elections as they were about pheasant hunting season. Jim Shoemacher inherited this farmland from his father, Red, and this time every year he and his friends spend all of their free time hunting pheasant.
JIM SHOEMACHER: This is pheasant season in South Dakota, and it is big. Everybody comes from everywhere. We try to get our limit, but this year has been a little tough because of the drought, I think.
KWAME HOLMAN: The year-long drought has become a political flash point, particularly in the Senate race, where Tim Johnson and John Thune have traded charges regularly over whose party has done more to assist cash-strapped farmers and ranchers. Kevin Peters of nearby Winner says the drought has had an economic impact on almost everyone in his community.
KEVIN PETERS: Well the drought's a big issue here. Oh, it's terrible. It's going to hurt the economy bad because people sold off a lot of cattle. The crops didn't do well this year. Hope the rain comes and next year you'll get your crops back, but people have cow herds they raised for years. They've sold their cow herds off, and it'll take a lot of years to build the herds back up.
KWAME HOLMAN: Many independent farmers and ranchers, unable to feed their cattle, have had to sell off their herds at a fraction of their investment, creating tension with meatpackers who can fill their stockyards at very low cost.
SPOKESMAN: It's catastrophic. We're going to lose a lot of young producers, a lot of established producer as well, and it's up and down every main street of South Dakota.
KWAME HOLMAN: The drought across South Dakota has totaled nearly $2 billion in losses to all sectors of the economy.
GOV. WILLIAM JANKLOW: We have a drought that is the worst drought in the history of the state. Hockin county has had two inches of rain in 12 months.
KWAME HOLMAN: Pheasant hunting has helped offset some of the losses farmers have suffered from the drought. In recent years, it has added more than $100 million to South Dakota's economy, most of the money coming from out-of-state hunters.
DAN PETERS: The pheasant hunting really helps the average land owner, kind of makes things work in this state, so we sure appreciate the out-of-staters.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Next time you get me to come back, let's go pheasant hunting. ( Cheers and applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: And the political campaigns have attracted a lot of out-of-state money as well, most of it to buy airtime on Sioux Falls television.
COMMERCIAL: With only one Congressman, doesn't it makes sense to send our best informed, our strongest voice, a respected national leader. That's Bill Janklow.
COMMERCIAL: I'm Stephanie Herseth, and I want every child in South Dakota to be able to grow up and find a good job here at home. That was my dream growing up and it's what I'll fight for in Congress.
GARY BOLTON: We get a lot of outside orders from outside agencies, from Washington D.C., for example, and not just the community ads, but also the issue advertising, third party advertising, and a lot of that's coming in from out of state.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gary Bolton is general manager of NBC affiliate KDLT, where the political ads have dominated the commercial blocks.
GARY BOLTON: This is by far the most political weapon this market has ever seen in one year. From February to now, we're looking at just the Sioux Falls market alone, over $20 million on the television stations.
COMMERCIAL: For 30 years we've had a water problem, we went to Senator Johnson in February and by October we had our problem solved.
COMMERCIAL: Putting South Dakotans first but voting our values, every day every time.
GARY BOLTON: There's such a demand all the time on all the stations in the market that, you know, you literally have to run them back to back.
KWAME HOLMAN: And for that, the candidates apologize.
REP. JOHN THUNE: I hope you're using your remote control this year. I know that I am.
STEPHANIE HERSETH: For the most part, voters have made up their minds. There are still some undecideds, and they're ready for the campaigns to be done.
KWAME HOLMAN: The many weeks and months of television ads and face to face campaigning have left South Dakota's 475,000 registered voters quite familiar with their House and Senate candidates. The outcomes in these dead-heat races could well be determined by the few percentage points of voters who have listed themselves as undecided.