For three weeks every summer, one cannot find the country's
most influential Democrat in Washington, D.C. or surrounded by a
phalanx of press and staff. Instead Tom Daschle can be found in
the fire halls, diners, farm equipment stores or on
the back roads of rural South Dakota. Daschle says he uses the unscheduled
and unhurried tour to gauge what is on his constituent's minds.
For those who have
followed Daschle's career, they say the tour is the state's senior senator
embracing the "prairie populist" ideals that first attracted
him to politics.
low-key, low-profile appearances at cattle auctions, health clinics
and coffee shops are typical of his self-effacing approach to politics,
which this year has succeeded in uniting Senate Democrats as a significant
roadblock to the Bush administration's pursuit of a massive tax cut
and other legislative goals," John Lancaster wrote of the tours
in a 2001 Washington Post profile.
Despite his apparently
humble nature and modest roots, the minority leader has used a mastery
of the senate procedure coupled with a fierce belief in partisan politics
to rise to the upper echelons of the Democratic Party and to unify a
and self-effacing, Daschle is neither a stirring orator nor a prodigious
fundraiser," Nicholas Confessore wrote in an article in the liberal
American Prospect. "Although liberal for his home state of South
Dakota, Daschle is just left of center among his fellow Democrats. He
leads no ideological or geographic bloc, isn't really closely associated
with any particular wing of the party, and, for that matter, is rather
less well known than some of his more boisterous, outsize colleagues."
But when Republican
Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont bolted his party in May 2001, becoming
an independent, and swung the balance of power to the Democrats, he
also made Sen. Tom Daschle arguably the most influential Democrat in
His ascent to political
power found its beginnings in a tiny northeast South Dakota farming
community. The oldest of four boys, Tom was born in 1947 in the rural
town of Aberdeen to a middle-income family. His father was a decorated
World War Two veteran who worked as a bookkeeper for a local auto parts
In his early years,
Daschle excelled in academics, flourishing at Aberdeen's Central High
School and feeding his growing interest in political affair at Boys
State, a weeklong leadership camp sponsored by the American Legion.
In 1969, he became
the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a degree in
political science from South Dakota State University with the help of
the ROTC program. He then entered the service, working for three years
as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command
During his time
away from South Dakota, Daschle's interest in politics appeared to only
grow and when his term of service ended, he went to work in the Washington
office of Sen. James Abourezk. He worked there for five years, learning
the intricacies of Senate debate and fueling his own desire to run for
office. When Abourezk announced his intention to resign in 1978, then-U.S.
Rep. Larry Pressler decided to mount a campaign, leaving one of the
state's two House seats open and giving Daschle his chance.
The campaign that
followed between the 30-year-old Daschle and Leo Thorsness, a decorated
Vietnam prisoner of war, was one of the closest South Dakota had ever
seen. In the end, Daschle's populist message and tireless campaigning
carried the day, barely. Daschle won his first campaign by 14 votes,
although a recount later bumped up the margin of victory to 139 votes.
In the House, he
stuck to the party line, representing farming and ranching interests
and keeping a relatively low profile. But his tenure in the House would
be tested four years later. Due to the 1980 census, South Dakota lost
one of its two House seats, pitting Daschle against a fellow incumbent,
Republican Cliff Roberts, in the 1982 election. Again, the campaign
was a close one, with both candidates fighting for the middle ground.
In the end, Daschle edged Roberts with 52 percent of the ballots cast.
Daschle won reelection
easily in 1984, making it two successful statewide campaigns for the
37-year-old. But it was a fratricidal Republican primary for the U.S.
Senate nomination in 1986 between Sen. James Abdnor and Gov. Bill Janklow
that gave Daschle his next opportunity. Daschle entered the race and
campaigned hard against Abdnor, who had spent much of his money and
had been badly bloodied in the primary. Again it was a tight race and
again Daschle managed a 52 percent to 48 percent victory.
In the Senate, Daschle
closely allied himself with Sen. George Mitchell of Maine. Two years
later, when Mitchell became the Senate majority leader, he chose Daschle
to head the influential Senate Democratic Policy Committee, essentially
serving as Mitchell's main assistant. But when Mitchell announced in
1994 he would leave the Senate, Daschle immediately organized his campaign
for majority leader. But to ascend to this post he would need to leapfrog
dozens of more experienced senators and defeat Tennessee Sen. Jim Sasser
who had also announced he would seek the post.
As the November
1994 election approached, it appeared Sasser would win the position.
But it was the year of the Republican Revolution and although Sasser
had the votes to become party leader, he did not have the votes to stay
in the Senate, going down in defeat to a little known surgeon, future
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
The field appeared
clear for his ascendancy, although it would now be as minority leader,
until several senior Democrats intervened and nearly derailed Daschle's
efforts. Michael Barone described the culmination of the leadership
fight in the 2002 Almanac of American Politics.
Christopher Dodd immediately entered the race, with encouragement from
some older committee chairmen, but Daschle relinquished his seat on
the Finance Committee to Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, whose vote
gave him a 24-23 victory --one that brings to mind his first election
to the House," Barone wrote.
As leader, he kept
his historically fractured caucus largely unified for some of the most
intense partisan fights, the 1995 government shutdown, the impeachment
of President Clinton and the passage of President Bush's tax cut.
With Jeffords' defection,
Daschle became Senate leader, working to balance partisan differences
with the president with the need to get legislation done, but also serving
as chief Democratic spokesman in opposition to the president.
As the 2002 campaign
heated up, Republican ads sought to portray Daschle as the personification
of the obstructionist Senate, bent on holding back a president in a
time of war. In race after race, Democrats were tarred with the connection
of helping Daschle in his fight against the president.
In the end several
Democrats did go down in defeat because of the president's popularity
and the perceived gridlock in the senate, but few blamed Daschle and
no one mounted a serious leadership challenge against him.
Now Daschle must
mount his own campaign for reelection against a Republican who only
narrowly lost in 2002 to Sen. Tim Johnson.
Daschle must walk
a fine line, rallying support in this traditionally conservative state
while running the national party in the upper house. Most analysts expect
the race to be close and also for Republicans to pour a lot of money
into the campaign in hopes of ousting one of the nation's leading Democrats.
Tom Daschle is married
to his second wife, former Federal Aviation Administration official
and now aviation lobbyist Linda Hall Daschle, and is the father of three.
By Lee Banville, Online NewsHour