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But according to a Democratic Senate leadership staffer, several events and meetings in the past few days seemed to pull Daschle back from jumping into the race: “He wanted to serve as minority leader for at least part of this congressional session, but members of his caucus made it clear to him in meetings that they couldn’t afford a part-time leader, not now with this president and just after losing the majority,” says the staffer.
With no clear national leader, Democrats in both the Senate and inside the Democratic National Committee expect Daschle to be a key fundraiser for the party, as well as a recruiter of potential Senate candidates in 2004 now that untested Sen. Jon Corzine is running the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Daschle most likely would have served as minority leader for eight to ten months, then stepped aside in fall 2003. But Democratic caucus members indicated that that plan was unacceptable, when there were at least two other Senators — Nevada’s Harry Reid and Connecticut’s Chris Dodd — clamoring to take on the leadership mantle right away.
“To walk away mid-term would have created all kinds of problems,” says another Democratic leadership staffer. “Over the next year, you’d be seeing Daschle at events and fundraisers and wondering, ‘Is he doing this for the party, or for himself?’ Then there is time. You know he’d be spending more time on the road, and not on Capitol Hill strategizing. And then you walk away and create this fight for the job. It just doesn’t work.”
Daschle — legitimately — was also concerned about how four to five Democratic Senators could coexist on the floor of the Senate while also running for president. “You’ve already got Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman, maybe Graham preening for the cameras. I think Senator Daschle really believes we can do something up here if we have a strong focused caucus. With him running too, he knew we weren’t going to be at our strongest,” says a staffer on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Daschle did stay on because of the size of the fight he faced. Depending on what happens with Republican popularity in the coming months, he himself may face a stiff challenge in South Dakota in 2004 from former Rep. John Thune. And Democrats are extremely concerned about losing more seats in the Senate next election cycle. Already, they are anticipating stiff competition from Republicans in New York, where Chuck Schumer may be forced to face GOP God Rudy Giuliani, South Carolina, where Fritz Hollings may retire, and in Washington state and California. The White House has already begun vetting possible candidates in all those states. “It’s going to be an extremely tough two years, and I think Daschle knew that. It had to affect his thinking,” says the DSCC staffer.
Perhaps also playing into this thinking was the increasing realization that he probably couldn’t win in 2004. Like several other candidates, Daschle would be counting on a good showing in the Iowa caucus to move his campaign forward into the big primary season. But in the past several days, Rep. Dick Gephardt, the former Democratic House leader, made several impressive moves to solidify his standing as the frontrunner in Iowa. First he rolled out union support in the state that made it clear to the competition that organized labor was again leaning toward the man it supported and who won the caucus in 1988.
Then on Monday, Gephardt quietly announced that he had retained political consultant John Lapp to manage his Iowa race this time around. Lapp is another Democratic hot commodity, having engineered the successful gubernatorial race of incoming Gov. Tom Vilsack. While it wasn’t clear that Daschle was pursuing Lapp for his own team, both John Kerry and John Edwards were heavily courting the 30-something consultant.
“The thinking was that Iowa was Daschle’s best chance at really making a splash and gaining some momentum,” says the DSCC staffer. “Part of his thinking may have been that he’s lost out on some good talent in the one state he seemed in a position to do well in right away. Gephardt’s moves may have helped make his decision for him.”
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