Daschle won't seek presidency next year

Democrat's decision surprises colleagues

January 08, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota announced yesterday that he would not seek his party's nomination for president next year, declining to join a growing field of Democratic hopefuls.

Daschle, whose decision surprised colleagues and close aides, said he would dedicate himself to fighting President Bush's agenda in the Senate, saying, "This is where my heart is."

"I'm not going to run for president," Daschle said, "because my passion is right here" in the Senate.

His decision, which Daschle announced on the first day of the new Republican-controlled Congress, removed him from the largest field of Democratic presidential candidates in years. The contest has attracted Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut is expected soon to announce his intention to run, and several others are considering a presidential campaign. They include Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the former NATO commander.

Daschle pointedly left the door open to a presidential bid after 2004.

"There may come a time in my future when a national campaign, a campaign for the presidency, is one that I will, again, entertain," the 55-year-old Democratic leader said.

With so many Democrats entering the fray, Daschle caught even his strategists off guard. Some of his political aides had begun recruiting a staff for a potential presidential campaign, aides said. Also, news reports said Daschle was arranging a weekend announcement in his hometown of Aberdeen, S.D., and had told confidants that he was inclined to run.

"No one saw this coming; it was out of nowhere," said a Democratic aide close to Daschle. "He did a 180. This was so out of left field."

Yesterday, the senator said he had been making the necessary preparations for a campaign in order to keep his options open.

The South Dakotan, a shrewd strategist of Senate procedures who has nonetheless had difficulty rallying his caucus around a coherent Democratic message, said he was pleased to be staying put.

"I feel as good about this decision as any I've ever made," the senator said during a news conference at which he introduced his Senate leadership team and mentioned he would run for re-election next year.

A reserved and soft-spoken figure, Daschle is sometimes likened to a steel fist in a velvet glove. While he applies a soft touch and usually displays an unflappable demeanor, he is a fierce negotiator.

Daschle, who served four terms in the House before his election to the Senate, was minority leader for six years before his brief stint in the Senate's top post. His tenure as majority leader began in 2001, when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to become an independent.

As Democratic leader, Daschle was tarnished by the outcome of last year's elections, in which his party lost control of the Senate, in part because of its failure to articulate a compelling message.

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