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The New York Times

February 16, 2004 Monday

Op-ed page

The Medals Don't Matter

By Jake Tapper.

WASHINGTON -- According to Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, one of John Kerry's main advantages in the coming presidential campaign is his ''chest full of medals.'' His remarks leave little doubt that Democrats will continue to make an issue out of whatever questions may linger about President Bush's service in the National Guard.

What's doubtful is whether Americans care. After all, President Bush defeated not one but two veterans on the way to the White House four years ago. And his predecessor, Bill Clinton, twice prevailed over decorated combat veterans to win the presidency.

So why does Mr. McAuliffe place so much importance on Mr. Kerry's Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts? Recent history would seem to indicate that medals don't necessarily help a candidate, while their absence doesn't necessarily hurt.

Consider: in 1993, George H. W. Bush, a Navy pilot in World War II, packed up his Flying Cross medals to make room for Bill Clinton, who famously avoided service in Vietnam. In the Democratic primary campaign the previous year, Mr. Clinton had defeated Bob Kerrey, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, and in 1996 he would win re-election over Bob Dole, who won two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star in World War II.

President Bush has an equally impressive record. In the 2000 Republican primary, he vanquished John McCain, a decorated war hero who was a prisoner of war for more than five years in North Vietnam. In the general election he defeated former Specialist Al Gore, who worked near Saigon as an Army journalist.

Of course, that was before the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which seem to have made voters more appreciative of military experience. At least that's the Democrats' hope -- a hope that may have been bolstered by none other than President Bush himself. ''I'm a war president,'' he said last week. ''I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind.''

But the war's effect on Mr. Bush may be greater than its impact on American politics. Gray Davis, who won a Bronze Star in Vietnam, was recalled as governor of California last year despite the support of Gen. Wesley Clark, whose presidential ambitions were dashed last week. Max Cleland lost his bid for re-election as Democratic senator from Georgia in 2002 despite losing both legs and an arm in Vietnam. Mr. Cleland was defeated by Saxby Chambliss, a Republican member of the House who never served in the military.

That campaign was especially vicious, with Republican advertisements showing Mr. Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. If that race is any guide, this year's presidential campaign may reach new depths.

In the coming months, members of both parties may want to reread a speech delivered from the floor of the Senate on the eve of another presidential campaign in which Vietnam was an issue. ''We do not need now to divide America over who served and how,'' it reads. No group ''has cornered the market on virtue or rectitude or love of country.''

The year was 1992. The speaker, then as now a decorated combat veteran, was Senator John Kerry.

The New York Times Magazine

September 1, 2002 Sunday

Retiring, Not Shy

By Jake Tapper

Q: You're leaving Congress after 18 years this fall. But you've been making news before you go -- your recent comments about Iraq, expressing concerns about American plans to attack, got a lot of attention.Was the press reaction overblown?

A: I don't think it was overblown, though I'm not sure it was clearly understood. I was trying to talk about who we are as a nation. I think we're somebody special. And we're not an aggressor. When somebody is compromising the freedom of somebody else on the globe -- as was the case when Saddam Hussein had Iraq invade Kuwait -- we ought to be there. But to attack just when we've got a fruitcake running around some country using it as a venue, I don't see a need.

Q: President Bush seems to think there's a need.

A: If he does, nobody has taken the time to show it to me yet.

Q: Do you think that's a weakness of the Bush administration, that it doesn't consult with Congress enough?

A: You have to remember, this whole debate on the question of whether we attack Vietnam did not originate in the Bush White House --

Q: I'm sorry to interrupt, sir, but you said, "Vietnam." I think you meant Iraq.

A: Sorry, Iraq. Anyway, it didn't originate with the Bush White House.

Q: Not to make too big a thing of it, but do you think there was anything Freudian just then when you referred to Iraq as Vietnam?

A: I was wondering the same thing, but I don't think so. I was not a Vietnam War protester. But I don't know what to make of it. I don't think it was a Freudian slip, but who knows?

Q: What if Iraq made a move against Israel?

A: An attack on Israel is an attack on America, in my estimation. My No. 1 priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel.

Q: I'm told you're not as fond of all of our allies -- the French, for instance.

A: Well, I've never been good at foreign policy. It's never been an area of particular strength. But I learned real early on that if you're having a discussion about foreign policy, just say something disparaging about the French, and everybody will think you know what you're talking about.

Q: You're known for your rhetorical flourishes, including peppering your speeches with lyrics from country songs. Any reason for that?

A: I tend to go with country songs more often than others because the lesson is right on the surface. My favorite is "(I'm Just an) Old Chunk of Coal," by Billy Joe Shaver, which should be everyone's campaign song. But there's a million of them, and there's a lesson in every one of them.

Q: You're also known among your staff for "Armey's axioms," which you're hoping to collect in a book. Any particular favorites?

A: "The market is rational; the government's dumb." I also like "You can't get your finger on the problem when you've got it in the wind."

Q: Have the recent corporate scandals shaken your faith in free markets?

A: No, but my faith in bureaucratic corporate management has been shaken. And we do need to take a look at some corporate managers, because freedom is not a privilege they've taken responsibly.

Q: You're a former economics professor. Compare teaching to politics.

A: Here you're working with a more pleasant group of people. There isn't the petty meanness in Congress that you find in university politics.

Q: Really? I think that would surprise most people.

A: You can take it back to Woodrow Wilson, who said that the reason the fights are so vicious in a university setting is that the stakes are so low. My line when I left there is that I just wasn't tough enough for that place. There's a saying in the House: "There are never permanent enemies; there are permanent issues." You have to get along with this guy today because he may be your ally tomorrow. I've got a bill with Jesse Jackson Jr. -- I want to emphasize the Jr.

Q: Having been in the House since 1984, you've seen a number of House speakers. Rank them from best to worst.

A: Denny Hastert's the best speaker I've had the privilege to work with. Then obviously following him would be Newt Gingrich as second best. I don't know that I want to say who was the worst.

Q: Why the preference for Hastert over Gingrich?

A: Newt was really a great politician, but Denny's a legislator. There was a greater similarity between myself and my abilities with Denny than Newt.

Q: There's much chatter about tensions between you and Tom DeLay, the Republican whip. Any last thoughts about him you want to share?

A: I don't have a whole lot to say about Tom. I'm sure he'll be successful in what he does, and I expect him to be a good leader for this party.

Q: Is he more like Hastert or Gingrich?

A: Tom DeLay is more of a politician than a legislator.

Q: Are you going to miss Washington?

A: No. I'll miss the House of Representatives probably every day for the rest of my life, but I won't miss Washington.



The New York Times

June 27, 2003 Friday

Op-ed page

It Wasn't So Bad

By Jake Tapper

Have you ever been pleasantly if mildly surprised by a movie the critics have panned? I had just such a feeling when I watched, two days late, a recording of Howard Dean's now infamous appearance last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Dr. Dean, the Democratic presidential candidate and former Vermont governor, has gotten notice for bringing some energy to the dismal Democratic ranks. But after his appearance his candidacy was immediately suffused with bad buzz. "If Dean wants to have any chance of getting into the White House, he needs to learn some basic facts about our country," said Joe Scarborough of MSNBC. Even The Associated Press reported that Dr. Dean "did not help himself with an uneven performance."

But many of Dr. Dean's answers seemed perfectly reasonable. His response to Tim Russert's pop quiz about the number of soldiers on active duty -- he said one million to two million; the answer is 1.4 million -- seems acceptable, especially at a time when the number is in flux. His answers about the solvency of Social Security were glib. But they were no more dishonest than any other candidate's.

Dr. Dean did seem perturbed during some of the program, and many of his answers -- especially an evasive response about whether Canadian same-sex marriages should be accepted in the United States -- showed he is all too aware of the political consequences of his self-proclaimed boldness. But his appearance was no disaster.

So why such a negative response?

Howard Dean, make no mistake, is full of bluster. His sudden notoriety has no doubt inflated his already sizable doctor's ego. What happened Sunday has more to do with Dr. Dean's tone than with his answers.

Dr. Dean doesn't seem to like reporters much. (The Vermont press corps had to sue to get him to disclose his travel schedule.) "If reporters are combative, I'll be combative right back," he told me in February.

On Sunday morning, confronted by an especially probing journalist, Dr. Dean lashed back. He called one Russert question "silly, like asking me who the ambassador to Rwanda is." Mr. Russert's response to another Dean answer: "No, no, no, no, no, no."

It may be that Dr. Dean's temperament is ill suited to Washington -- or it may be that he is too eager to emphasize his "outsider" credentials. That might also explain his wince-inducing declaration that "just like President Reagan, President Clinton and President Bush, I do not have extensive experience in national security."

While this disdain for the ways of Washington may be admirable, it's not popular among the pundit class inside the Beltway. How it plays in the rest of the country -- the 95 percent of American homes that don't tune into "Meet the Press" each week -- remains to be seen.


The New York Times

July 27, 2003 Sunday

Arts and Leisure Desk

Is This Town Big Enough For Two Puppet Boulevards?

By Jake Tapper

THE line to get into Entertainment Weekly's annual It party last month was long, and getting longer: countless stylish hipsters were massed around the door to the Roxy, stretching down 18th Street, around the corner and up 10th Avenue. When Jeff Marx arrived, however, he headed straight for the entrance and the publicist who was guarding it. Despite his large posse and his nonchalant air, he appeared to be an unlikely candidate for V.I.P. access. For one thing, he was dressed in schlumpy clothes. And for another, most of the members of his posse were puppets.

They weren't just any puppets, of course; they were the stars of "Avenue Q," the musical that Mr. Marx and Robert Lopez created, wrote and scored, and they were being honored that night as some of the "100 Most Creative People in Entertainment." So after a bit of a fuss, the doorman unclipped the velvet rope, and Mr. Marx and his entourage strolled onto the red carpet, where the paparazzi awaited.

The show, which is both a spoof of and a homage to "Sesame Street," had an acclaimed run at the Vineyard Theater last spring that made its puppets into celebrities, of a sort. At the party, having earned the right to mingle with guests like Bruce Willis and Snoop Dogg, the puppets hammed it up for their adoring public. "The legless look is very in," the female lead, Kate Monster -- played by Stephanie D'Abruzzo -- joked to a CNN camera. "No legs -- no cellulite." Meanwhile, Rod, the closeted gay puppet played by John Tartaglia, started petting the fuzzy boom mike, calling it "Cousin Larry." Over the course of the night, the "Avenue Q" posse proved to be as popular as -- and often cleverer than -- the award winners who were actual carbon-based life forms.

On Thursday the puppets will be making another very public debut, as they open at the Golden Theater on Broadway. There, larger audiences will have the opportunity to revel in mean-spirited songs like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "Schadenfreude" ("The world needs people like you and me/Who've been knocked around by fate./ Cause when people see us,/ They don't want to be us,/ And that makes them feel great") and off-color characters (Kate Monster has nipples, an onstage orgasm and a buxom rival named Lucy T. Slut). Indeed, much of the fun of the show lies in the chance to see the familiar world of children's wonder dragged into a curse-filled world of Gen-X angst, unemployment and promiscuous, drunken sex.

The musical makes no effort to hide its debt to "Sesame Street." The opening number starts with the line "The sun is shining, it's a lovely day" -- deliberately close to the television show's famous "Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away." After the main characters, Kate Monster and Princeton, have a euphoric, booze-fueled encounter, the silhouette of a male face on a video monitor mouths the word "come" while a female counterpart adds "mitment," offering a grown-up adaptation of the old children's phonics lesson. Cookie Monster's legacy is suggested by the presence of Trekkie Monster, who is addicted to Internet porn instead of sweets; Bert and Ernie are echoed by two male puppet roommates, one of whom is in love with the other.

As Rick Lyon, the show's puppet designer, explains on his Web site,, the question behind "Avenue Q" is: "What if a cozy, familiar kids' television show had to grow up? Not just the characters, but the subject matter, the songs, the attitude."

It's one long, backhanded compliment -- extremely backhanded, you might say, which is interesting given that Mr. Marx is a former intern for the series. And that, in 1999, he was fired. Mr. Lyon also worked on the show, as a puppeteer -- until he, too, was asked not to return just last season. The other three puppeteers -- Ms. D'Abruzzo, Mr. Tartaglia and Jennifer Barnhart -- worked there as well, albeit without incident.

Few television producers would tolerate this kind of satire, especially from disgruntled former employees. And in the past, Sesame Workshop (the group that controls "Sesame Street") and the Jim Henson Company, which created the show's stars, the Muppets, have been extremely protective of their brands. In 1982, Henson sued five residents of Bath, Me., who had named their pig contest the Miss Piggy Pageant; last year, Sesame obtained a cease-and-desist order against "Ernest & Bertram," an eight-minute independent film that jokingly presumed a sexual relationship between Ernie and Bert. Sesame executives said they even contemplated bringing suit when Bert's image appeared, unexpectedly, on posters at a 2001 pro-Al-Qaeda rally in Bangladesh.

About "Avenue Q," however, Sesame Workshop has almost nothing to say. "They're not our characters," said Ellen Lewis, a spokeswoman. "It's not like they took Cookie and Big Bird and put them into adult situations. They are different puppets." As for the bodies that inhabit them, she said, "they happen to be our puppeteers," then hurried off the phone.

I wanted to find out what the Sesame Workshop executives who saw the show thought of it. Ms. Lewis said none of them had seen it. That's odd, I said, since several of them had been seen in the audience, including Kevin Clash, an executive producer with the "Elmo's World" segment of the show, and Lewis Bernstein, the executive producer of "Sesame Street." Ms. Lewis said that Mr. Clash -- the puppeteer of the popular Elmo character -- wasn't really a Sesame Workshop executive and that Mr. Bernstein was out of the country.

Why, I asked, had she told me that no one had seen the show? "I asked a handful of them, and they hadn't," she replied.

About Mr. Marx's firing, Ms. Lewis said, "Interns come and go," while she said Mr. Lyon's exit was a human resources issue that she would not be able to comment on.

Mr. Clash, however, said he thought "Avenue Q" was "phenomenal." The show takes "Sesame Street" and "does it in a way for adults," he said, adding, "They do the satire we can't." Mr. Clash often acts as a scout for new talent; he helped discover Ms. D'Abruzzo and served as a mentor for Mr. Tartaglia when Mr. Tartaglia was in his early teens. Mr. Clash was clearly pleased.

At Mr. Lyon's studios in East Orange, N.J., where a Kermit the Frog doll decorates his desk, puppets are in various stages of construction. Jumping to Broadway not only means more money and union rules, but also more puppets -- since, as Mr. Lyon explains, "it's exceedingly difficult to change the costumes of puppets on the fly." Five versions of the character Nicky are being created -- one sits atop a worktable, complete, while three others are in different stages of facelessness and baldness. A fifth, whose construction has just begun, looks skinned.

Trying to engage Mr. Lyon on the relationship between his show and his uncharacteristically laissez-faire former employer, I point out what everyone who has seen the show has noted: that Nicky and his roommate, Rod, resemble Ernie and Bert from "Sesame Street." Mr. Lyon disagrees. It's true, he concedes, that both Ernie and Nicky have round faces, functioning hands and a happy-go-lucky demeanor, whereas both Bert and Rod have stiff fingers, long faces and trouble loosening up. But Ernie has an orange face, while Nicky's is green. Ernie is clean-shaven, while Nicky has 5 o'clock shadow. Ernie's eyes are oval; Nicky's are circular.

"I have enough regard for the Jim Henson Company that I know what is and what isn't a true reflection of a Muppet character," Mr. Lyon says. As for the Ernie-Bert dynamic, he responds: "That's older than 'Sesame Street.' There's always this question of why are these two characters sharing an apartment -- look at Batman and Robin."

The creators of "Avenue Q" have become extremely adept at splitting these puppet hairs. After attending an early reading of the show a couple of years ago, Cheryl Henson, Jim Henson's daughter, "told us specifically," Mr. Marx recalled, that the Trekkie Monster too closely resembled Cookie Monster. At the time Trekkie Monster was merely a green version of the Cookie Monster original, with Spock-like ears. Soon, he was rebuilt, and now, Mr. Lyon says, he resembles "the illegitimate love child of the Grinch and Chewbacca."

"There was a fear of God that motivated that change," Mr. Lyon said. But that was the only one they were asked to make.

"We are not making fun of 'Sesame Street,' " he insisted. "In some ways, 'Avenue Q' is reverential toward 'Sesame Street' and demonstrates an enormous amount of respect for what Jim Henson created." The show, he added, does not "disrespect puppetry in any way -- there are no cheap shots at puppets, with their eyes falling out or anything like that."

Ms. D'Abruzzo agreed. "It would be another thing if we used real 'Sesame Street' characters," she said. "Or if we were cruel about 'Sesame Street' -- like in some of the zine or Web site parodies, where you have Big Bird on crack, or homeless people on 'Sesame Street.' "

But Mr. Marx acknowledged that he savored the night, last April, when a group of executives from Sesame Workshop came to "Avenue Q." He said he had been fired from "Sesame Street" for being "too pushy" -- trying to write for the show, whereas his bosses "wanted someone to fetch coffee and clean tables." So seeing them in the audience was gratifying, because "now they're coming to see my show."

Mr. Lyon, the puppet designer, would not say why his years on "Sesame Street" came to an end, but he was outspoken on the recent quality of the show that used to employ him. " 'Mr. Rogers' is always very honest," he said. "But 'Sesame Street' has a general tendency to be condescending, and it's getting worse at it. They've dumbed it down."

It was the television show's characters that first brought Mr. Lopez and Mr. Marx together. They met at the B.M.I.-Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop in New York in 1998 (when Mr. Marx was still working as a lawyer) and discovered that they shared a fondness for the Muppets -- a belief in their power to speak to otherwise jaded audiences and a disappointment in their recent films. "Wouldn't it be great," Mr. Marx wondered, "if there were a new Muppet movie that wasn't awful?" So he and Mr. Lopez wrote a musical based on "Hamlet" called "Kermit, Prince of Denmark." It won them the Ed Kleban award for most promising lyricist and $100,000 in 1999.

The Henson Company passed on it. Brian Henson, Jim Henson's son, "just wasn't interested," Mr. Marx said. "It was a period when people weren't making musicals." And then Mr. Marx was fired. "We said, 'To hell with writing for other people's characters, let's write our own,' " he said. "Avenue Q" was soon born.

But despite having formed his creative life, and his current hit musical, in reaction to "Sesame Street" and the Henson Company, Mr. Marx acknowledged that "it probably doesn't hurt us to be associated in small ways with something much bigger."

Perhaps it's that sense of begrudging gratitude that softened the Sesame Workshop's attitude toward its bastard offspring. Or perhaps it's the similarity between "Avenue Q" and an otherwise closely guarded secret about Muppet culture: the skits the "Sesame" puppeteers do for one another at the company's annual December wrap party.

"It's where you have characters familiar on the show doing unfamiliar things," Mr. Lyon said. About two years ago, one wrap party skit involved Elmo on the precipice of puberty: his falsetto was dipping into bass and he was growing little Muppet pubic hairs.

"The wrap parties get blue," Ms. D'Abruzzo said. "They get bawdy."

Since Elmo focuses on one topic per episode of "Elmo's World," another wrap skit showed Elmo learning all about underwear. "He talked to a bra puppet," Ms. D'Abruzzo recalled, laughing. "And he talked to a G-string puppet. That's another reason why I think Sesame Workshop isn't offended by what we're doing. Because we know how to make fun of ourselves."


The New York Times Magazine

July 28, 2002 Sunday

Up With Downloads

By Jake Tapper

Q: In July 2001, a district judge shut down the music file-sharing company you co-founded, Napster, for assisting others in copyright infringement. Recently, all five major record labels that had been suing you agreed to participate in a file-streaming service called Rhapsody on that allows consumers to hear music for a fee. What's your view of that development?

A: t's just another step in the process; they're taking another conservative approach to get their catalogs out there to see if it has any impact on their ability to sell CD's. But consumers are not going to accept services that offer only limited content. And there has to be some way for people to learn about new material. That's what drove Napster. When Napster was at its peak, it was easier to find a lot of truly obscure music. None of the other services have offered this.

Q: What was your favorite Napster download?

A: This live recording of Sublime performing a cover of the Bob Marley song "Zimbabwe." I also like some foreign hip-hop and a lot of remixes -- there's a whole new world of derivative works where people completely changed these major-label songs and actually made the tracks sound better and more interesting.

Q: Do you ever buy music?

A: Yeah. Even though I have an MP3 player in my car, there's something about the process of loading things on there that in the current state of things is very tedious. So for now there's definitely still a market for purchasing CD's.

Q: A couple of years ago you were the man -- you were on the cover of magazines, you introduced Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards. That must have been a pretty heady time.

A: For me, that stuff was the toughest part of it all. Some of the things were novel and interesting, but the benefits of doing them did not outweigh the amount of stress and concern I had about them.

Q: You really didn't enjoy celebrity life at all?

A: Maybe it has something to do with my nature. Computer people tend to be antisocial. People who spend large amounts of time in front of computer screens -- well, it tends to affect your ability to interact and to explain yourself.

Q: As a music fan, you must have felt weird being slammed by artists like Eminem, Neil Young and Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, who said he'd like "to knock that punk around that invented" Napster.

A: I'm just going to continue to lift weights as much as I can, and -- I'm kidding. There was stuff early on that definitely scared me, back when there was such a huge uproar. But almost all -- maybe 99.9 percent -- of my interactions with artists were positive. Despite some questions about compensation, most artists seem to understand that the future is a good thing.

Q: In a few years getting music off the Net will probably be common and legal. You more than anyone are responsible for that, but you may not profit from it. Don't you feel like a sacrificial lamb?

A: I tend to look at things in terms of my circumstances before and after Napster. I'd left college. I was in Cape Cod, which is not exactly the tech center of the universe. So I'm pretty happy in terms of my situation now. Plus, just in general, I don't get mad. Maybe I should.

Q: What do you think will come after Rhapsody?

A: There is so much potential for these technology companies to collect interesting data about what people are listening to and then make some intelligent recommendations. You could have a semipersonalized stream that would allow you to experience a radio station truly targeted to you. At Napster, we've developed a payment system and a new file-sharing system, and added everything needed to enable users to share music as they compensate rights holders.

Q: When can we see this new Napster?

A: The technology is solid. Now it's a matter of getting agreements.

Q: You're only 21, and with all your ideas for the business, I'm sure you've had plenty of job offers. Ever thought about going over to the dark side?

A: No. (laughs) Though I have thought about starting a record label. There really needs to be more intelligent marketing of artists.

Q: Some of the politicians you and your company have dealt with are aspiring singers themselves -- Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, Attorney General John Ashcroft. Do you think there's a potential for Ashcroft MP3 downloads on the next Napster?

A: There's probably a niche group out there that would want it.

Q: And following your logic, that's exactly why Napster should exist, right? To fill that niche?

A: (Laughs) I wouldn't say that.


The New York Times

March 22, 2002 Friday

Op-ed Page

Notes From Sioux Falls; Politics on the Great Plains

By Jake Tapper

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- All politics is local, but on the sparsely populated Great Plains, it may be more local than elsewhere. The national parties and the Washington political consultants are starting to focus on the Senate race in South Dakota, but there's little evidence the voters, or the candidates, want the attention.

The race pits two incumbents against each other: Tim Johnson, the present senator and a protege of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and John Thune, the state's current representative in the House (South Dakota has only one) and the handpicked candidate of President Bush. Both political parties are pouring money and manpower into the race. Total spending could reach $15 million -- a terrifying prospect for local television viewers: $15 million buys about 179 hours of ads in Sioux Falls. Control of the United States Senate, currently tilted 50 to 49 in favor of Mr. Daschle and the Democrats, may hang in the balance.

But on Main Street in Sioux Falls last weekend, no one -- least of all the candidates -- seemed too concerned about national politics. It was a parade, for St. Patrick's Day, and Mr. Johnson walked down the center of the street surrounded by firefighters and seeming oddly inconspicuous. About five minutes behind him jogged the challenger, Mr. Thune. Accompanied by 15 junior high school girls and wearing what appeared to be a high school letterman's jacket, Mr. Thune, a former high school basketball star, veered from sidewalk to sidewalk, shaking hands and slapping fives.

Mr. Johnson, a moderate Democrat, and Mr. Thune, a conservative Republican, have their differences on policy -- Mr. Johnson was an early supporter of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, for example, while Mr. Thune preferred other plans and only supported it later. But the campaign thus far has been mostly about personal character and local issues: the wonky Mr. Johnson and his seat on the Appropriations Committee vs. the hustling Mr. Thune and his connections to the president. The issues, such as they are, include rural health care and a provision in the farm bill about whether meat packers can own livestock.

At the parade, both men drew smatterings of applause and occasional cheers from the crowd. The importance of retail politics can't be overstated in a state with a population of 754,844, smaller than that of Indianapolis. According to polls, an astounding four of every five state voters know of both candidates.

The voters have a history of punishing any politician seen to have forgotten where he came from. George McGovern lost his Senate seat in 1980 largely because he was "out of touch" with South Dakotans. (He was guilty of the ultimate inside-the-Beltway sin: he had a Washington driver's license.) Mr. Daschle has told friends that he is not going to repeat Mr. McGovern's mistake, and he now spends two to three months in the state every year.

Both Mr. Thune and Mr. Johnson spend most weekends in the state, too. And Mr. Johnson is also well aware of South Dakota's tradition of replacing one of its senators with its representative; as a member of the House himself, he defeated Larry Pressler in 1996. (In 1980 Mr. McGovern lost to Representative Jim Abdnor, while in 1986 Mr. Abdnor lost to Representative Tom Daschle.)

So it's not surprising that both candidates are diligently trying not to appear too Washingtonian. Although Mr. Johnson toured the state with the majority leader, heralding the pork they had brought home, Mr. Johnson can point to his record of voting 71 percent of the time with the president -- in fact, he sided with Mr. Bush against Mr. Daschle on last year's tax cut. His campaign Web site even has a quote from President Bush stripped across the top: "It makes no sense to replace someone on the Appropriations Committee with someone who is not." (Never mind that the president was referring to a Republican House member from Iowa.)

Mr. Thune, meanwhile, recognizes that Mr. Daschle is a favorite son, so in his first campaign ad Mr. Thune pledged that he'd "work with President Bush and with Tom Daschle" -- both of whom carried the state with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2000 and 1998, respectively. Perhaps Mr. Thune is also aware that Mr. Abdnor, the man Mr. Daschle defeated in '86, has been known to look back at Ronald Reagan's campaign visit on his behalf as not particularly helpful.

Still, the candidates have not been able to keep the Washington heavies out of the state altogether. The National Republican Senatorial Committee ran an ad criticizing Mr. Johnson for voting against a few defense programs. Democrats responded by noting that Mr. Johnson's son, Brooks, is a soldier in Afghanistan. Mr. Thune's commercials soon began featuring his father, who was a World War II fighter pilot. It is now beyond question that both candidates have brave and honorable relatives.

At one point the two men had struck a deal to keep the Washington barbarians at the border, agreeing not to allow third-party groups to air advertisements in the state. But the deal, which was of dubious legality anyway, soon fell apart. So third-party attack ads now pollute the state, to sometimes ridiculous effect, as when the Family Research Council compared Senator Daschle to Saddam Hussein for opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It's not at all clear that the rules of national politics apply in South Dakota. Receiving the endorsement from the state firefighters' union last week, Mr. Johnson pooh-poohed reports that Mr. Thune planned to deploy the Republican Party's most potent weapon: former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "He can have Mayor Giuliani," Mr. Johnson said. "I'll take these firefighters any day."

In most other states, such a casual dismissal of the nation's most popular politician might seem foolhardy, if not suicidal. But then, when's the last time Mr. Giuliani was in Sioux Falls?