At about noon on March 4, a few hours before he announced he was retiring from the Senate, Majority Leader George Mitchell put in a call to Tom Daschle. "He just wanted to let me know his plans," Daschle says. Daschle was on Mitchell's heads-up list for good reason. As co-chair with Mitchell of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, the South Dakota Democrat is one of Mitchell's closest allies. Even so, Mitchell's decision "came as a complete surprise," Daschle says. "I fully expected him to run for another term."
But if Mitchell's news caught Daschle unaware, it didn't quite catch him unprepared. Almost immediately after Mitchell's withdrawal, Daschle began working the phones, quietly lining up support for his own campaign to take over the leader's post. "He didn't waste any time," says one Senate Democrat. "Tom approached me, what was it, four, five days after Mitchell's announcement."
As far as Daschle is concerned, there wasn't any time to waste. At 46, the soft-spoken, unabashedly ambitious Midwesterner had waited more than twenty years for this moment. Indeed, Daschle has spent his political lifetime mapping his ascent through the Democratic hierarchy in anticipation of the leader's chair, demonstrating an unfailing skill for being in just the right place at just the right time, nurturing friendships with powerful members who taught him the value of political favors and eased his way up the Democratic ladder.
Daschle found his first tutor in James Abourezk. The two met in 1969, when Abourezk was a candidate for attorney general in South Dakota and Daschle was president of the South Dakota State University Young Democrats. (Daschle was Clintonesque in his adolescent political desires. "People would ask what's your dream, what's your ambition?" Daschle says of his high school days in Nashville. "And I can recall saying, well, my dream is someday to be a u.s. Senator.") After college and the Air Force, Daschle came to Washington as an assistant for Abourezk, who won election to the Senate in 1972. Daschle quickly mastered Senate rules and procedures, and was especially mindful of the way power flowed. "Tom knew what doors went where," says one Democrat.
Six years later Daschle gathered up his Hill experience and, with Abourezk's support, ran for a House seat in eastern South Dakota's first district. He won by fourteen votes. (An eight-month-long recount upped the tally to 139.) Daschle soon befriended Representative Morris Udall of Arizona, who encouraged him to run as regional whip, a low-ranking spot in the leadership. For Udall, the regional chairman, Daschle was an obvious choice; Daschle had worked on the Arizonan's 1976 presidential campaign.
Udall refined the young freshman's (Daschle was 31) already considerable schmoozing skills, instructing him in the art of massaging colleagues for votes while winning their trust. He also taught him how to play up a connection. "You should just go to the offices of the congressmen in our region, tell them you're running, tell them I support you and ask them for their vote," Daschle recalls Udall telling him. Daschle also won election as president of his freshman class and finessed a spot on the House leadership steering committee.
It was at an early meeting of that committee that Daschle formed a fast friendship with another powerful House member, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. "Danny and I just happened to sit next to each other for the first couple of times and got to know one another," Daschle says. "I think because he was looking for allies and because I think I was ready from the beginning to work with him, he befriended me." Daschle forged similar alliances with other House higher-ups: Tony Coelho, Richard Gephardt, Tip O'Neill. As a member of the Agriculture Committee, Daschle concentrated his legislative efforts on protecting his rural constituents, winning points for his farm-credit bills. But as a budding member of the leadership, he seemed more interested in making connections than in making legislation.
After four terms in the House Daschle won a Senate seat in 1986 and immediately endorsed Robert Byrd against Bennett Johnston for majority leader. Daschle didn't know either man well, but recalled that his old boss Abourezk was a Byrd ally. Once again, he was cementing relationships quickly. "I just decided that I would say yes to Byrd early and allow him to use my name in any way he wanted to," he says. Byrd didn't forget his loyalty. When Daschle set his sights on the Finance Committee, Byrd smoothed the way.
In 1988 Byrd stepped down as majority leader and, once again, Daschle threw his support behind the right man. In openly backing George Mitchell over Bennett Johnston and Daniel Inouye, he won Mitchell's gratitude. Mitchell proved to be Daschle's most influential political helpmate, creating a special co-chairman position for him on the policy committee, a high-profile perch from which he could survey the political landscape. When Mitchell decided to step down, Daschle saw his opportunity.
Daschle announced for the job on March 23. For several weeks it looked like he might be the only candidate, as prospect after prospect failed to take up the challenge. John Breaux, the chief deputy Democratic whip, removed himself from contention after he decided he couldn't muster the votes. Wendell Ford, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, also pulled out after "long and meaningful reflection." So did Patrick Leahy, who said his "heart wasn't in it," and Harry Reid, who threw his support to Daschle. Budget Committee Chairman Jim Sasser of Tennessee finally made it a contest when he sent out an announcement letter on April 21.
But don't expect much in the way of ideological fireworks from a Sasser-Daschle matchup. Both are quiet, well-respected liberals. And the two men like each other (they once spent an afternoon cruising the Chesapeake Bay in John Glenn's motor boat). Sasser has an edge in age and experience: eleven years Daschle's senior and a powerful committee chairman in his third term, he may appeal to older senators who point out that Daschle, who chairs no committee (he heads Finance and Agriculture subcommittees), has never had to choreograph the passage of a major piece of legislation. Sasser may also have an edge among Southern senators.
Already the lines of allegiance are forming. Though a new leader won't be picked until after the November elections, Daschle claims he has locked up twenty of the twenty-eight votes he'll need to win, including those of Byron Dorgan, Bob Graham, Jay Rockefeller, Kent Conrad, Bob Kerrey, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Harris Wofford and Reid.
Sasser, meanwhile, is playing a more discreet game. "He, like most of the older ones here, thinks this is really inside baseball, and shouldn't get into it," says a Senate aide close to Sasser. "And if he talks to the press, then we get into the questions of who's in his camp. His colleagues don't want their names bandied about." That said, he speculates that Sasser "probably has got commitments from between fifteen and twenty," among them Dale Bumpers, Paul Sarbanes, Joe Biden, Paul Wellstone and Glenn. Mitchell is staying neutral. If Sasser prefers to keep quiet, however, Daschle, the journeyman political angler, couldn't resist at least one public gesture on his opponent's behalf. After Sasser, who is up for re-election this year, announced his bid for leader, Daschle offered to campaign for him. "I thought somebody might think that was kind of an unusual situation: Jim Sasser's opponent is there campaigning for him," Daschle smiles. So far, he hasn't heard back.