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It's about the money.

In a campaign season where presidential candidates are promising change, Sen. Tim Johnson is running on the currency of the past: cold, hard cash.

Johnson's campaign for a third U.S. Senate term portrays the incumbent Democrat as a hardworking public servant who made an heroic recovery from a brain hemorrhage to resume the fight for South Dakota on issues such as energy development, farm policy, veterans' care and economic development.

But within that overall campaign chorus, the central song is about federal funds, and how a 22-year-congressional veteran can squeeze the cloudy federal budget hard enough to make it rain money on his home state.

The list of examples seems endless. In advertisements and news releases, Johnson touts his clout in ways that typically have both a financial and political bottom line.

From his spot on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Johnson has gathered $248,000 to help with the Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City, $11 million for security upgrades at Ellsworth Air Base, $400,000 for methamphetamine treatment on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation and $37 million for Mni Wiconi Rural Water System.

That's just to name a few West River projects. The Johnson campaign can quickly provide a long list of projects statewide worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

"From my position on the Senate Appropriations Committee, I am able to do a lot of good for South Dakota," Johnson said.

Who could argue with the benefits of money? Not many South Dakotans, who profess independence from Washington and the need for fiscal restraint yet consistently call out for cash, and get it.

Not Joel Dykstra, who is disturbed by the bloated federal budget and the way it's spent but hesitates to criticize appropriations that fund domestic-violence centers, town libraries, rural fire departments or municipal water supplies.

Dykstra is on record as opposing the so-called earmark process as it is handled now in Congress. Through earmarks, members of the Senate Appropriations Committees can direct federal funds to specific projects, often in the home states of committee members. Lawmakers not on the committee negotiate for earmarks, often in exchange for votes elsewhere.

"We know we're going to change the earmark process," Dykstra said. "Everybody recognizes that this thing has gone too far."

But Dykstra stops well short of saying that he would refuse to support earmarks for South Dakota projects. He's more likely to call for more accountability in the earmark system and challenge the idea that Johnson has unique ability to bring home the revenue bacon because of his seniority and appropriations spot.

"My sense is that those things are overrated. I can't say what the value of that is. I only have their word for it," Dykstra said. "But to hear them talk, you'd think Sen. Thune has done nothing in the last four years."

Republican Sen. John Thune doesn't sit on appropriations but has managed to bring home his share of federal loot, sometimes through work with Johnson.

Thune obviously supports Dykstra in his race against Johnson but also seems to honor a sort of gentlemen's agreement to cooperate with the Democrat on state issues and not criticize one another personally.

Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has no such agreement. Coburn is a table-pounding fiscal conservative who hammers hard on earmarks. He calls them a form of mutual "blackmail," because they lead members to trade support for questionable funding in order to protect such requests of their own.

Through earmarking, congressional members put their home states ahead of the national good and continue to drive up the federal deficit, Coburn said last week while in eastern South Dakota to campaign for Dykstra.

"Any time something is brought to South Dakota, you pay 50 times what you brought by giving in to other people's earmarks," Coburn said. "So people don't vote against a bill even though it may stink because it's about you and how you look at home. I think we need to change the culture in the U.S. Senate."

Dykstra embraces the change theme and tries to connect Johnson with the old ways of Congress and the liberal Democratic leadership, as well as to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

"Sen. Johnson talks moderation, but 80 percent of the time he votes with Sen. Obama, and 90 percent of the time he votes with Sen. (Harry) Reid and the Democratic leadership," Dykstra said. "Often, he's out of step with South Dakota on those votes."

Johnson labels that a misrepresentation of his philosophy and his voting record. He points out that he voted against Democratic leadership on many key issues. They included voting for the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, against a resolution in support of a constitutional amendment allowing flag burning, for the authorization of force in Iraq and in support of reauthorizing the Patriot Act.

Johnson also diverged from leadership on ethanol, partial birth abortion, defense appropriations, tax cuts, parental notification on abortions and CAFE standards, among others. Johnson also tends to separate, particularly in recent years, from leadership on Second Amendment issues.

That earned him an "A" rating, campaign contribution and endorsement from the NRA this year. Dykstra got the same rating, but lost the endorsement to the incumbent, which is typical when the rating is equal between candidates.

The two have clear differences on some issues, including elective abortion. Johnson takes a more pro-choice stance. But Dykstra has hardly brought that emotion-charged issue into the campaign, despite the upcoming state vote on another abortion-ban proposal.

Dykstra supports Initiated Measure 11. Johnson opposes it, as he did a similar ban proposed in 2006. Beyond that, the issue has hardly been a whisper in the race.

There have been more than whispers about Johnson's continued struggle with the physical effects of his brain hemorrhage. Almost two years later, he has little use of his right arm and leg. His speech remains slow and sometimes slurred, and he tends to respond to questions in short, simple sentences.

Because of the speech limitations, Johnson refused all invitations to debate Dykstra. He said his speech didn't accurately reflect his cognitive skills. Dykstra had pushed the debate issue publicly, arguing that Johnson denied voters a chance to see him face his challenger and answer policy questions. Dykstra avoids commenting on Johnson's physical impairments and won't say whether he thinks the senator is fit to serve.

But Coburn, a family practice doctor in Muskogee, didn't hesitate to speak about Johnson's physical limitations.

"Speaking as a physician, I think he is dealing with his disability as best he can," Coburn said. "But I notice there is no debate here. If you can't debate in South Dakota, you can't debate in the Washington."

Coburn said he goes home to Oklahoma virtually every weekend. He holds about 60 town-hall-style meetings across the state each year. He sees patients each Monday morning before flying back to Washington, D.C., and a week of Senate chores.

It's a physically challenging schedule that also allows him to stay in touch with constituents and his state, Coburn said. And he wonders how Johnson can manage that.

"Tim's a very nice guy," he said. "The fact is that our country needs us all doing our jobs in a highly effective way. And when you have an injury like Tim's, it makes it very difficult to be effective."

Johnson argues that his effectiveness is clear in the fact that he hasn't missed a vote since returning to the Senate 13 months ago, helped shape the farm bill and other crucial legislation and continued to respond to requests from across South Dakota to "show me the money."

Mostly limited to a wheelchair or electric scooter for more than the short walks where he leans heavily on a cane, Johnson managed a 19-community tour in South Dakota during the August recess. He and his wife, Barbara, also maintain a home in Sioux Falls and return regularly.

As for his effectiveness, Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said Johnson is well liked, widely respected and increasingly influential. Dorgan said Johnson's physical limitations and speech problems don't diminish his effectiveness, and said Coburn's comments were more political than medical.

"Tim's speech is slower. His movement is a bit slower. But he is very smart and very quick to pick up on issues. He always has been. That has not changed at all," Dorgan said. "Results in the Senate don't depend on how fast you talk. They depend on how effective you are. And Tim's very effective."

Dorgan said people who understand Congress also understand the value of a seat on appropriations, where the North Dakota senator also serves.

"It's very hard to get a seat on appropriations. Being on the committee is a very big advantage, especially to smaller-populated states," Dorgan said.

Dorgan called Johnson a "political moderate," who has never been afraid to challenge party leadership or vote another way.

"He makes up his own mind about issues, and does what he thinks is right for South Dakota and the nation," Dorgan said.

With the power of incumbency, six times the campaign cash raised by Dykstra and the ability to bring home federal booty for voters, Johnson has been the clear favorite in the campaign. And polls show him well ahead.

But Dykstra claims recent gains in polling, and contends that the gap is narrowing. Last week, he e-mailed reporters a news release including a paragraph from Evans-Novak Political Report in Washington, D.C., calling the Johnson- Dykstra race a "potential GOP sleeper" based on Dykstra's criticism of Johnson over the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac bailout.

Dykstra continues to work that issue, saying Johnson could have done more to help avert the financial crisis that led to a $700 billion bailout. But the campaign impacts are questionable.

Much-quoted political science professor Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia doesn't see any surprises in the race. There was some question about Johnson's Senate seat during his convalescence, but that has disappeared since his returned to the Senate last year, Sabato said.

Johnson's Senate seat is considered to be in the "safe" category, he said.

"There were questions as he was recovering, but not since he went public," Sabato said. "Johnson has never been in danger. And I don't know of anyone who has ever considered him to be in danger."

If that proves true on Nov. 4, the senator's well-publicized role as a financial rainmaker could be a key factor.

Congress and the earmarks might be controversial with voters. But the money they shower on South Dakota is not.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com.

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