-- There are two views of what's happening in the 2002 election, one in Washington and the other in highly competitive places such as this one.

Seen from afar, this is an election about nothing in particular, a story without a theme that just goes on and on and on. But seen from the battlegrounds, this is a contest with clear stakes and real engagement over policy and ideology. It is also -- more so here, perhaps, than anywhere -- a real test for President Bush.

To assume that this election is issueless, you have to ignore almost every word that Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. John Thune are saying day after day in South Dakota -- and what their counterparts are saying in comparably bitter contests elsewhere. Johnson, the friendly and unpretentious Democratic incumbent, is unabashed in using populist rhetoric to condemn Enron and corporate irresponsibility. He ties Thune's health care views to the "big drug companies" and Republican energy policies to "big oil companies."

Thune, warm and attractive, is tireless in linking Johnson to "liberal special interest groups" on taxes, budget policy, stem-cell research, military spending -- well, just about anything. Though each of these locally popular politicians tries to sound moderate, a voter would have had to sleep through the past six months not to know there are large differences between them. And in this civic-minded state, voters don't sleep through elections.

Every single South Dakotan is aware of Bush's stake in this contest. The president has scheduled his third campaign visit to the state for Thursday. He plans to visit Aberdeen, which just happens to be the hometown of the state's senior Democratic senator, Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

If there is any state where Bush ought to be able to help a Republican, especially a popular one, this is it. Bush defeated Al Gore here by better than 3-2, and the White House has intervened aggressively. The president persuaded Thune to abandon what would have been an easy race for governor to take on Johnson, and he encouraged William Janklow, the outgoing Republican governor, to salvage Thune's House seat. Janklow faces Stephanie Herseth, a 31-year-old Democrat who is one of the party's stars this year.

So what would it say if Democrats Johnson and Herseth, who are running at least even with their Republican opponents, actually won? It would not mean that the president has suddenly become unpopular. But it could signal that Bush's popularity is wider than it is deep and thus far less transferable than the president's lieutenants had hoped. To beat back such perceptions, the White House now has no choice but to keep redoubling its already substantial bets on these elections.

It's true, of course, that where the president is concerned, Johnson has pursued a strategy of deflection, not confrontation. "We ran a state race and they've run a national race," says Johnson campaign manager Steve Hildebrand. Many of Johnson's ads emphasize the goodies he has brought to local communities around South Dakota.

Thune retorts that as a Republican, he will have influence with Bush that Johnson and Daschle don't. Daschle's clout -- a word Johnson uses repeatedly -- is much valued here, and Thune dances around Daschle as much as Johnson dances around Bush. Thune attacks "the liberal Senate leadership" without using Daschle's name and insists that he and Daschle would form a bipartisan team where local interests were concerned.

Daschle isn't letting Thune off easily. He pointedly questioned Thune's effectiveness in an interview last week with David Kranz, the influential political reporter at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, and will stump the state for Johnson in the campaign's closing days.

In a sign that Republicans are worried that Bush and national issues may not be enough to win it for Thune, the party has trumpeted allegations of ballot improprieties on Indian reservations, where Johnson has organized aggressively. Democrats say the move is part of a nationwide Republican effort to suppress turnout among minorities and will backfire.

In the end, Thune needs to rely so heavily on Bush's aura that he can't help but cast the race as a referendum on Bush. Thune's lavish campaign mailers portray him with Bush as part of "South Dakota's Team" on issue after issue. One of Thune's recent television commercials beautifully evokes Bush's finest hours after Sept. 11, 2001, with touching scenes from Ground Zero. At that moment last year, George Bush could have carried almost any candidate to victory. The voters of this very Republican state will tell us in a week how true that still is.