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Abdnor-Daschle Race Reflection of Farm Crisis

October 14, 1986 GMT

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) _ In these days of hardship down on the farm, no election better typifies the political struggles of rural America than the South Dakota Senate race.

Republican Sen. Jim Abdnor, a farmer himself, has been a staunch supporter of President Reagan, whose farm policies have been blamed for record numbers of farm foreclosures.

His Democratic challenger, Rep. Tom Daschle, has been a militant opponent of the White House agricultural blueprint.

The question to be answered in the Nov. 4 election is whether discontent on the farm translates into a backlash against the popular, plain-spoken Abdnor, a freshman who trounced liberal Sen. George McGovern in 1980 and easily turned back a primary challenge this year by two-term GOP Gov. Bill Janklow.

″I don’t think it’s Republican versus Democrat,″ says Paul Johnson, Daschle’s campaign manager. ″You’ve got two very different people, one taking a very aggressive stance on agriculture and strong opposition to Reagan’s farm policies versus Jim Abdnor who says the 1985 farm bill is the best we can do.

″If I was a farmer I’d want to do something different. My God they can’t keep going the way they are.″

The Abdnor-Daschle race, which both sides agree is a tossup, is one of a dozen close contests that will determine whether the Republicans hold their 53-47 majority in the Senate.

Daschle, 38, is one of the Democrats’ brightest hopes this year. He started in politics as a Washington aide to former Sen. James Abourezk and returned home in 1978 to run a door-to-door campaign that put him in the U.S. House at age 30. Now the state’s lone congressman, he has won four House terms.

Abdnor, 63, has always been perceived outside the state as vulnerable. But he has lost only one election in three decades of public service. His folksy, unpolished manner has endeared him to South Dakotans, who thought McGovern a bit too liberal, a bit too smooth.

In this campaign, Abdnor is addressing a speech impediment for the first time. In one of his television ads he says: ″So I’m not a great speaker. Heck I’m not a great dancer either, but I’m a great fighter for South Dakota.″

It was an earlier ad, this one Daschle’s, that turned the contest nasty last summer. The ad ran footage from a farm forum in which Abdnor said, ″Maybe we do have to sell below cost for awhile, but I think until we regain that market that’s the way we’re going to have to go.″

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The ad, which ran for a month, caused an uproar among farmers, who are selling their crops for prices that are no more than half what they were three years ago. Abdnor did not deny the quote, but said it was taken out of context.

A state-sponsored survey this fall showed that 22 percent of the state’s 33,000 farmers either expected to go out of business in the next year or were uncertain they could stay in business any longer than that.

And when Daschle’s pollster recently restated the question that Reagan asked of the electorate in 1980 (″Are you better off now than you were four years ago?″), 62 percent of South Dakotans said they were worse off financially than they were in 1981. Among farmers, 70 percent said they were worse off.

Hundreds of farmers left the fields to demonstrate when Reagan campaigned here late last month on Abdnor’s behalf. Abdnor was absent, opting to stay in Washington while Congress labored through its year-end business. At the governor’s suggestion, the president met briefly with two of the farmers.

″I realized right from the start that maybe we were being used to diffuse the whole farm situation,″ said Charlie Johnson of Madison, one of the two who met Reagan. Johnson supports Daschle and predicts a revolt against Republicans. ″Just as six years ago with the Reagan landslide, people pushed the Republican button. Today, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, I think they’re going to pull the lever Democrat.″

Reagan is still personally popular here despite his administration’s policies, and his visit unquestionably boosted Abdnor’s campaign. Immediately afterward, Abdnor began running an ad that linked Daschle with actress Jane Fonda and implied that Daschle shared her disdain for red meat because he invited her to testify before a farm task force last year.

″All of it combined was a pretty good punch in the nose,″ said Johnson.

Daschle’s polls had shown him ahead by 10 percent to 12 percent a month ago, but Democratic pollster Ed Lazarus said the lead has all but evaporated. ″There’s no question the race has tightened up - not unexpectedly. You’re talking about a state that’s largely Republican,″ he said.

Abdnor is even more optimistic as the campaign enters the final weeks. ″I’m ahead but I’m not bragging about it. I’m ahead,″ he said.