SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- The fight for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination comes to South Dakota tomorrow with two farm-state neighbors, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, facing each other for Midwest regional bragging rights -- and a lifeline for their imperiled campaigns.
The Democratic primary has been widely billed as an elimination contest between Mr. Kerrey, who ran third in the New Hampshire primary, and Mr. Harkin, who finished fourth, although both vow to press on no matter what the outcome here. But a poor showing doubtless would hamper further fund-raising efforts. Mr. Kerrey, with the best organization in the state, is favored.
But Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin will not have tomorrow's primary as their private battleground. Because television time is so cheap to buy in this sparsely populated state of less than 700,000 souls, the three other principal Democratic candidates -- former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California -- have made late entries with paid commercials as well as participating in a televised debate here last night.
Both Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin sorely need a victory here to elbow their way back into the competition against Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Clinton, the one-two finishers in New Hampshire. But in the primary campaign's final days, the activities of Mr. Tsongas, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Brown, who did well in yesterday's Maine caucuses and ran a 30-minute fund-appeal on television here, have complicated the picture.
David Doak, a Kerrey strategist, says the decision of Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Clinton to have a presence here is a gamble and, he insists, an opportunity for Mr. Kerrey.
"We're dealing with two guys with glass jaws," Mr. Doak said of Mr. Tsongas, regarded by many as a regional candidate after his success in New England, and Mr. Clinton, still plagued among some voters by allegations of infidelity and draft-dodging. "They came in here trying to take us out," Mr. Doak said. "But we're going to survive and go on."
The only statewide poll taken so far underscored Mr. Doak's optimism. It had Mr. Kerrey ahead as of three days ago with 26 percent, to 16 percent for Mr. Clinton, 15 percent for Mr. Harkin, 12 percent for Mr. Tsongas, 3 percent for Mr. Brown, and 28 percent undecided.
But the telephone poll reflected the view of only 288 Democrats who said they probably would vote, with a statistical margin of error of plus or minus 6.2 percent. That wide margin undermined the credibility of the poll, especially with such a large percentage of undecided voters.
A prominent Harkin supporter says Mr. Kerrey has the edge in part because Mr. Harkin, the first candidate to organize and campaign here, diverted resources to the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 10 out of concern that another candidate might embarrass him in his own state. None tried, and Mr. Harkin won about 76 percent of the caucus goers in an uncontested -- and hence essentially meaningless victory.
In terms of national convention delegates, South Dakota selects only three fewer than New Hampshire, 15 to 18, but the attention given by the candidates and the resources pumped into the state primary here have been much less than in the first-in-the-nation primary.
Mr. Harkin, Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Tsongas all came to South Dakota shortly after Tuesday's vote in New Hampshire, and Mr. Brown and Mr. Clinton came yesterday for the debate and some brief personal campaigning. But the bulk of this abbreviated campaign has been taking place on television, enabling all five candidates to have a visibility that to some degree makes up for the lack of time spent personally among the state's 180,000 registered Democrats.
Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin have been airing new ads placing special emphasis on farm issues, about which each has had more experience than the others.
Mr. Tsongas, often perceived as an unconventional campaigner who eschews gimmicks, nevertheless spent about an hour the other day amid mooing cattle at the Sioux Falls stockyards with his father-in-law, a former college football star and member of the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame. He boasted, facetiously perhaps, that he was the only candidate who could claim that four members of his household -- his wife, Nikki, and their three daughters -- had "South Dakota blood in their veins."