Daschle’s Reversal on Bid Stuns Aides, Colleagues

Posted January 7, 2003 at 6:43pm

Stunning his friends, advisers and colleagues, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (S.D.) on Tuesday abandoned an all-but-announced presidential bid in favor of retaining his Democratic post in the chamber and running for re-election in 2004.

Daschle’s decision sent immediate reverberations throughout the party, altering the scope of the presidential primary race, ending the brewing contest to succeed him in the leader’s position and a likely race for Whip, and boosting Senate Democrats’ morale heading into the 2004 elections.

Daschle’s advisers had been expecting him to follow through with preliminary plans that called for him to make an announcement of his intentions to run for president Saturday in Aberdeen, S.D., immediately followed by a swing through neighboring Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation caucus. Instead, they began receiving phone calls early Tuesday morning asking them to assemble in the leader’s Capitol office in order to take part in the nascent campaign. Daschle settled on the decision not to run in a discussion with his family late Monday night.

“I’m very much at peace with my decision,” Daschle said after a Tuesday news conference unveiling an expanded Senate leadership team.

Daschle had said for more than a year that his options were threefold — to run for the White House, to run for re-election or to retire. In the weeks after the midterm elections, which tossed Democrats back into the minority, his options appeared to narrow to either the White House or retiring at the end of the 108th Congress, which would have marked a decade as Democratic leader.

One senior adviser remarked that the “biggest surprise” Tuesday to members of Daschle’s staff and kitchen cabinet was his announcement that he would stand for another term in a seat that would have been very difficult for Democrats to hold if Daschle had abandoned it.

Another adviser called the decision to not enter the Democratic presidential field something that came after a serious “gut check” Monday night with his family.

Daschle said that he decided that the best role he could play for Democrats — and where his passion rests — was remaining in the Senate as Minority Leader, a post he had previously held for six-and-a-half years and used to stymie much of the GOP agenda through parliamentary tactics, a role he hopes to duplicate in thwarting Bush White House proposals.

“We are anxious to get started,” he said at the press conference, adding, “I feel as good about this decision as any I’ve ever made.”

Many Democratic colleagues learned of Daschle’s decision from cable news reports, which they relayed to one another as they made their way onto the Senate floor for the swearing-in ceremony for new and newly re-elected Senators.

“I’m assuming the Senate and his responsibilities [as leader] had something to do with it,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has already announced his presidential campaign. “I’m pleased he’s not someone I’ll have to try to differentiate myself from.”

[IMGCAP(1)] Planning was already well under way for how Daschle would campaign for the White House and remain Minority Leader, a position he expected to hold for some undetermined period of time this year.

“Some of it is simply a question of his own personal time allocation,” a senior strategist said Monday, when it was assumed he would jump into the presidential race.

In the next few months, Daschle was to continue being the main floor presence leading the fight against President Bush’s agenda, but was expecting to devote a large portion of his personal time to fundraising and political travels for his national campaign.

Very little of his time would have gone to fundraising for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

That would have marked a major departure for Daschle, who has been the prime fundraiser for Senate Democrats since taking over as leader in 1995. The election cycle had been particularly grueling on Daschle, as there were no Democratic administration figures to provide high-profile appearances at fundraisers for the DSCC and candidates. His inner circle had been saying that Democrats wouldn’t be hurt too badly by Daschle’s disappearance from their fundraising efforts because they believed the incoming DSCC chairman, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), a former Wall Street investment banker, had the connections and drive to make it work.

“The DSCC works better when it’s not as reliant on Daschle,” one strategist argued.

Several sources also indicated that in the months ahead Daschle would have slowly begun to give more responsibilities to his top deputy, Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to run the floor for him when he was off campaigning. That was a move that could have prompted some grumbling within the Caucus, particularly since Reid was facing a likely contest with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) for leader when Daschle eventually did relinquish the post.

Worried about the appearance that he was pushing Daschle out the door, Reid had been talking to members of the Democratic leadership team this week about signing a letter to Daschle requesting that he stay on in the top job even as he ran for president, according to three Democratic sources.

Instead, Reid is left in the Whip’s post as he readies for his own re-election bid in 2004. And Dodd is left to consider his other option for 2004, a presidential bid. “As long as he wants to be leader he’s got my vote,” Dodd said of Daschle.

But it’s still unclear how long Daschle expects to remain Democratic leader, assuming he wins another term next year. He declined to say he expected to be leader beyond the 2004 elections. “We’ll take it a cycle at a time,” he said.

In past interviews with Roll Call, Daschle has said that a reason for running for re-election would be to follow the model set by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), both of whom held leadership positions earlier in their tenure but went on to become even more influential as legislators through seniority and top committee posts.

Some confidants remained unsure about his future leadership intentions.

“I don’t think he’s thought that through. My hope is that he’ll remain as leader. I think he’s done a tremendous job,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a member of the leadership and close friend of Daschle’s.

But others said it was hard to envision him giving up his leader’s title as long as the Caucus wants him, particularly since he is not in a senior enough position to claim a ranking member’s post on a committee. And, one adviser noted that there is a “certain liberation” in becoming Minority Leader, a position that is much easier than leading the majority.

Physically and emotionally, advisers said Daschle looked much better Tuesday. “He feels reinvigorated,” one said.

A major question mark is what will happen to Daschle’s inner circle of advisers, who had expected to take lead roles in his presidential campaign. Steve Hildebrand, who most recently managed Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) narrow re-election win over former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), was among them. As the former director of Al Gore’s momentum-building win in Iowa in 2000, Hildebrand will be a much-sought-after commodity by other Democrats vying for the White House.

Daschle also had some of the top talent from the Clinton White House ready to serve as top advisers in a campaign, including former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta and former Clinton advisers Joel Johnson and Ron Klain. Anita Dunn, media consultant for Daschle’s leadership political action committee, now has only one client considering a presidential bid, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

In addition, Daschle had a national network of wealthy donors he had harvested after nearly a decade as the top fundraiser for Senate Democrats.

Previously hoping that Daschle wouldn’t enter the race, Kerry admitted Tuesday that he had already had conversations with donors and fundraisers from the Daschle network. Asked if he would be calling those folks again in light of Daschle’s decision, Kerry smiled.

“Undoubtedly, there are now people who will be looking for someone else to support,” he said.