The national political spotlight has turned to South Dakota as its June 3 Democratic presidential primary approaches and candidates or their surrogates are flocking to the state.
Democratic activists in South Dakota are hoping all the attention to appearances by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - planned for today and Friday, respectively - will give their party an enduring boost that will help other candidates in the November election.
The most tangible measure so far of elevated enthusiasm: 1,200 new registered Democratic voters, according to a party official.
"Twelve hundred new Democrats is significant to say the least in South Dakota," Matthew McLarty, legislative director of the South Dakota Democratic Party said Wednesday.
Candidates and their supporters have begun criss-crossing South Dakota with an intensity not seen since 1992, when its primary fell early on the calendar and therefore drew more interest from candidates.
Former President Bill Clinton was in Rapid City over the weekend and visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which he had visited while in office, on Wednesday. His wife is reaching out to American Indian voters, highlighting her support for tribal sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was scheduled to visit a farm near Aberdeen today, to speak about farm policy. Obama, in turn, was scheduled to visit the Watertown area Friday morning, with a stop planned Friday evening at the Sioux Falls Arena.
Obama is backed by Democratic VIPs in South Dakota, including George McGovern, who days ago switched his allegiance from Clinton, as well as former Sen. Tom Daschle and Sen. Tim Johnson.
A poll by Dakota Wesleyan University, released in mid-April, showed Obama with a 12-percentage point lead among Democratic voters, but Clinton is hoping to ride fresh momentum from her commanding victory Tuesday in West Virginia.
Clinton's campaign argues that she can do well in South Dakota, drawing upon her strong appeal among older voters, women and working people.
"We think it's going to be a very competitive state," said Brendan Gilfillan, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign in eastern South Dakota. Her visit today to a farm near Bath, in the Aberdeen area, should resonate with rural voters, he said.
Regardless of which candidate comes out on top, the Democratic Party will benefit from the increased activity, he added.
"It's been great for the Democratic Party in states like South Dakota and states like North Dakota that don't generally have a spotlight," Gilffillan said.
Jamie Selzler, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, agreed. He believes the crowd of 18,000 people who were on hand to hear Obama and Clinton speak during the party's state convention April 4 will carry over to November.
The huge convention draw helped with fundraising, and also drew new faces to the party, Selzler said. Democrats in both Dakotas hope excitement in the presidential race in November will help them capture the state Senate.
In both Dakotas, Democratic activists say if they can manage a net gain of three Senate seats they will take over the upper legislative chamber.
South Dakota's June 3 primary is shared with Montana, giving voters in those states an unusual possibility to cast decisive votes. Both states follow contests next week in Oregon and Kentucky.
Dan Hannaher, chairman of Obama's North Dakota campaign, said the Democratic Party will benefit from the long presidential campaign, especially if it winds to a civil close.
He agrees with most pundits, who say Obama has effectively locked up the nomination.
"I think the nomination for all intents and purposes is over," Hannaher said.
Candidates plan visits with rural voters
The two Democratic presidential candidates will be wooing rural voters in stops planned this week.
Hillary Clinton will talk about agriculture in an appearance today at a farm near Bath, S.D.
Clinton will visit the farm of Dennis Jones, located at 12954 396th Ave. Bath is about eight miles east of Aberdeen on U.S. Highway 12.
On Friday, Barack Obama will campaign in Watertown.
Obama plans a town hall meeting on rural issues at the Codington County Extension Complex, 1910 Kep Ave. W. Doors will open at 9 a.m., with the program starting at 11 a.m.
The Obama event is free and open to the public, but those planning to attend must have tickets, available at the Obama Watertown headquarters at 100 S. Maple in Watertown today from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522