PIERRE S.D. — On Thursday, Jan. 21, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem returned a conquering hero.

The day after attending the Washington inauguration of Democratic President Joe Biden, Noem stood onstage at the annual state tourism conference in Pierre, S.D., receiving special recognition from a friendly audience who believes her roughshod approach to the COVID-19 virus saved the industry.

"Thank you for being there," Susan Johnson, a former tourism secretary and Black Hills promoter, told Noem after giving her a hug.

The Republican governor, with reported aspirations of 2024, then uttered what may be an emblematic admission of both her strength and limitations as a national candidate.

"I love South Dakota," Noem exclaimed. "Everyone here is just normal ... that doesn't always happen here in this crazy country."

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But is South Dakota "normal"? It's a state that is whiter and more Christian than most, where more own guns and where anti-transgender legislation appears just below pheasant hunting as a seasonal sport.

It's also a state with more COVID-19 deaths per capita than any state the region and is, as of Thursday, tied with Connecticut at 188 deaths per 100,000 persons, ranking sixth most deadly in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's data tracker.

But, for a country turned upside down, maybe South Dakota's "normal" has appeal.

"She's going to have to figure out a way to attract those people who are pretty strange," said Karen Kedrowski, a political scientist at Iowa State University and director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. "And where do they live? They live in California and New York City, and they have different values, and they're vegetarians — or vegans, God forbid, and they drive Priuses."

The conundrum of Trump

The first shots of a still-distant GOP presidential primary may have sounded last weekend, when Noem on Twitter took to task fellow Republican Nikki Haley for posting a sympathetic story on a "grocery-style" food bank for disadvantaged kids at a Texas school.

"There's no such thing as a free lunch," said the post Noem shared on social media, comprising a title of a book by economist Milton Friedman and his photo.

It was an odd broadside, especially as giving to the poor is rooted in a Christian faith Noem shares with Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor.

But the barb also smacked of the sort of bare-knuckled discourse Noem has both discouraged in remarks immediately after the deadly Trump-backed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and yet embraced as she figures out how to find a lane in a Republican Party still under the memory, if not the leash, of Trumpism.

Her searching for a political lane was on display at a news conference on Thursday when she delved into the annals of the Red Scare by questioning whether newly elected Georgia Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock shared "America's values." In a recent column for The Federalist she called the two Democrats "communists."

"Kristi Noem made a decision in 2020 to hitch her wagon to Donald Trump," said Jon Schaff, professor of government at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D. "That brand is more damaged than it was before. He lost the election, and you had the events of a couple weeks ago, and I think anybody in the Republican Party who's got an interest in high office has this conundrum."

Political scientists as well as Democratic and Republican party officials in South Dakota who spoke to Forum News Service for this story suggest Noem has the fight and flexibility to refashion herself as palatable, even appealing for suburban swing voters who may tire under an all-Democratic D.C. They say she wouldn't use the rhetoric yoked to win Custer that she'd use to win Cincinnati, or Orlando. They note most folks still want low taxes.

"There's a lot of her story that would really resonate with ordinary Americans," said Kedrowski. "She left college to take care of her family after her father died. She opened a restaurant on the ranch, and plugged away on getting her bachelor's degree through being in Congress."

Focus on South Dakota

More practically, she also has lots of time. On Thursday, asked about Trump's effect on the GOP, the governor who campaigned for Trump and gifted him a miniaturized sculpture with his head grafted atop pivoted to talking about home.

"I think a lot of what we've done in South Dakota this year is what Republicans believe (in)," said Noem. "Respecting personal responsibility and also focusing on balancing a budget ... and then protecting and valuing life."

This legislative cycle Noem has introduced a bill to ban abortions after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. She's asking lawmakers to pony up $900,000 for a civics overhaul that is light on details. And she wants more rural broadband. She's also kept a busy travel schedule, duck hunting in Arkansas one day while showing up in Washington, D.C., the next.

But the question she'll face increasingly as she seeks to export her politics nationally is, how "normal" are they?

Political sons and now daughters of South Dakota have long captured America's attention, from Democrats George McGovern and Tom Daschle to the second most-powerful Republican left standing in Washington, Sen. John Thune.

And the image of the "prairie populist," whose political heart and head are close to the quiet, hard-working people engraved into agricultural murals or the B-roll in country music songs, may still capture America's attention. Biden, for instance, was able to dust-off his Scranton lunch-pail ethos to successfully take down a Manhattan billionaire in Trump.

But political observers say gone are the days when South Dakota son Tom Brokaw's voice was heard on "NBC Nightly News," or when one-time Aberdeen and Yankton resident Lawrence Welk's champagne music flowed on national television broadcasts. What, they note, is normal for America in 2021 is hunkering down to save the nursing home residents, or celebrating a gay marriage or trying out an Impossible burger.

One of Noem's chief domestic wins touted in this year's state of the state address was her plan to encourage citizens to kill over 80,000 nest predators because the state's leadership blames critters — and not loss of grassland — as the leading blight of low pheasant numbers.

The question she'll face: Is South Dakota normal in America?

"I tend to agree with that sentiment," said Schaff. "But she has to realize that to win the presidency you don't need the votes of South Dakota. You need Maine and New Hampshire and Ohio and North Carolina, and that requires to talk to a different kind of person than rural South Dakotans."

Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com, or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek.