Three years ago, it took a nasty, industrial-strength assault by Karl Rove & Co. to oust Democratic leader Tom Daschle from his Senate seat. But if Republicans thought they had seen the last of the resilient South Dakotan, they were wrong. He's back, this time behind the scenes, as a sort of secret sauce in the surging presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama.
Daschle spent 30 years on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide, House member, senator and ultimately Democratic Senate leader. Now he is providing newcomer Obama with valuable endorsements, staff, fundraising lists and brotherly advice. "He brings an unrivaled mix of policy knowledge and political expertise," said Steven Hildebrand, an Obama senior campaign advisor. He ought to know: a fellow South Dakotan, he ran Daschle's last Senate campaign.
Money talks and Daschle knows the language. Although three years distant from the Hill (he is now a law firm consultant and lecturer at Georgetown), Daschle has carefully maintained his mailing list of 85,000 donors, and he is renting it to only one candidate – Obama. I am told that Daschle is about to do a fundraising letter for the campaign as well. "He is incredibly well-liked by Democrats," said Hildebrand. "He really doesn't have any enemies in the party."
His friends include an array of former staffers, friends and protégés who are working for Obama, among them Hildebrand, Senate chief of staff Pete Rouse, chief fundraiser Julianna Smoot, communications boss Robert Gibbs, press aide Dan Pfeiffer and research director Devorah Adler. Rouse, who has known Daschle for 30 years, was Obama's first and most important congressional hire.
An edge over Clinton
Daschle's unusually early endorsement of Obama last February gave the newcomer desperately-needed instant clout among insiders who were resigned to the inevitability of Hillary Clinton, but praying for an alternative. "What Daschle brought was credibility," said an insider close to both men, "and now they have developed a good personal relationship." The two men share a similar approach to both the process and substance of politics: a certain soft-spoken meticulousness, and a desire to blunt the sharp edges of partisanship.
Interestingly – tellingly – it was Obama who reached out to Daschle. In 2004, Obama was cruising to an easy victory in the Illinois Senate race, and had a lot of unused cash on hand. He gave a lot of it – some $85,000, according to Hildebrand – to Daschle, who was under White House siege in South Dakota. Even before he was sworn in, Obama knew who he wanted for his chief of staff: Rouse. Ironically, Daschle advised Rouse, a veteran with 30 years service on the Hill, to leave the Congress and take a lucrative lobbying position. But Obama sold Rouse, and in the process began the task of wooing Rouse's boss.
An Obama surrogate
Now Daschle and Obama talk regularly – the two have had a number of quiet dinners – and Daschle will soon be playing a major role on the campaign trail, serving as a mild-mannered but well-liked surrogate among party faithful.
I can see him being especially helpful in Iowa, where the almost-too-earnest caucus culture is tailor-made for Daschle's diligent approach to the game. "Iowa is Daschle's kind of place," said Hildebrand. That might make it Obama's, too.
One other thing. If Obama wins the nomination, Daschle will be a top contender for running mate. Far-fetched? Maybe. South Dakota is a red state, and one with the fewest possible electoral votes: three. But in 2000, political novice George W. Bush chose a congressional veteran from a sparsely-populated state as his reassuringly experienced running mate. Is Tom Daschle the Democratic answer to Dick Cheney? Then Daschle would be back, big time.