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 in this sparsely populated state of fewer 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.
The debate, also joined for the first time by former Mayor Larry Agran of Irvine, Calif., focused heavily on farm and rural issues, with no appreciable advantage going to any candidate. It was a mix of heat and humor as the candidates vied to convey a special affinity with South Dakota.
Mr. Harkin particularly sought to draw distinctions with Mr. Kerrey and repeatedly spoke of cooperating in the Senate with the state's popular junior senator, Thomas A. Daschle, who has not endorsed anyone.
In closing, Mr. Harkin thanked the voters of South Dakota for sending Mr. Daschle and Rep. Tim Johnson to Congress, and Mr. Kerrey countered by doing the same, adding with a grin: "But did you have to send us Larry Pressler?" Mr. Pressler is the state's Republican senator, with whom Mr. Kerrey has been feuding on the location of a toxic-waste site.
Mr. Clinton joined in by saying, "I wish my state bordered on South Dakota, but it doesn't, but they're a lot similar." And Mr. Tsongas noted that his father-in-law is from the state and that he jTC was "the only candidate who goes home every night to a wife and three daughters who have South Dakota blood in their veins. That doesn't make me an expert, but it gives me affection for this state."
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.
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.