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Daschle Shifts Focus To Own Bid

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) has revamped his political operation, putting a stronger emphasis on fundraising for his own re-election but also working numerous party events into his national travels.

Daschle, the workhorse of Senate Democratic fundraising efforts in recent years, has scaled back his commitment to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but still hopes to be a prominent figure for the committee on the rubber chicken circuit in this cycle.

But Daschle, Democratic Senators and party strategists all agreed the first thing he needs to do for the party is make sure his own seat remains under Democratic control next year.

“He’s helping, but he has to have a legitimate division of labor,” said DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.). “I want him in position to make sure he’s able to win his seat.”

Republicans have made no secret of their desire to knock Daschle off next year and in the past 16 months have tried to turn him into a political lightning rod, portraying his criticisms of President Bush’s foreign policy as unpatriotic. That scenario played out again Tuesday as Congressional Republicans attacked Daschle for saying Bush “failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war.”

Daschle’s supporters say there has been no slippage in his support at home in South Dakota, but that he’s not going to leave anything to chance in the near term.

The division of labor Corzine referred to in Daschle’s current efforts is evident in his recent hirings of political aides, individuals who will split time between his leadership political action committee, DASHPAC, and re-election effort, A Lot of People Supporting Tom Daschle.

Brian Hardwick, the finance director for the Democratic National Committee in 2000 and once director of former Vice President Al Gore’s PAC, has joined Daschle’s leadership PAC as national political director. Aides say Hardwick will play a lead role in reorganizing the political and fundraising structure of DASHPAC under new campaign finance laws that forbid soft money.

But Hardwick’s hiring was “just as much aimed at re-election,” as one strategist put it, noting that Hardwick and Melissa Maxfield, another DASHPAC fundraiser, will also work for the re-election committee. In the months ahead, Daschle hopes to post large cash-on-hand figures in his campaign account, sending a signal to former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) that another statewide race would be prohibitively costly.

“We’re not going to take the race for granted,” said Anita Dunn, a spokeswoman for Daschle’s political efforts. The Democratic leader is setting up a dense schedule of fundraising that will allow him to be prepared to take on the still undecided Thune, who raised more than $5 million for his unsuccessful 2002 race against Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).

“It may or may not happen, but we will be ready for it,” Dunn said.

At the end of 2002, A Lot of People Supporting Tom Daschle had nearly $1.5 million in the bank.

With one eye always on his own prospects in South Dakota, Daschle still expects to be involved in national campaign efforts and is trying to increase his profile as the party’s principal message man in his political travels.

“I can do both,” Daschle said Tuesday. “Last weekend was a good example of that.”

On Friday, Daschle flew to Dallas for an afternoon fundraiser for his re-election campaign, before heading to Arizona for the rest of the weekend. In Mesa, Ariz., Saturday morning, Daschle held an open roundtable with local seniors on Medicare and prescription drug coverage, then went to a luncheon with local Indian tribe leaders before heading off to a fundraising reception for Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.).

Saturday night he was the featured speaker at the Arizona Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner, and on Sunday he held a fundraising event in Tucson for his own campaign.

Aides say the components of Daschle’s weekend travels are threefold: political meetings, such as the meeting with tribal leaders; message events, such as the prescription drug roundtable; and money, split between his own campaign and those of other Democrats.

It’s a marked contrast to years past, when Daschle would parachute in and out of cities across the nation for the sole purpose of raising money without doing media events to drive the message. “It makes sense for Senator Daschle to be doing more than just fundraisers,” said one aide.

This strategy is also aimed at going around the national media, which Daschle and other Democrats contend focuses first and foremost on Bush. On a few of his recent trips, including journeys to Miami and Los Angeles, Daschle has scheduled one-on-one sitdowns with the top political reporter in the region.

Upcoming trips are in the works for New York City and a swing along the West Coast, although Daschle has said his political and fundraising efforts would be put on a brief pause to respect the troops in harm’s way if war breaks out in Iraq.

Corzine may not have the benefit of as much of Daschle’s time as have past DSCC chairs, but he is far better off than he would have been if Daschle had run for president, something he was widely expected to do but backed off from in early January.

Under that scenario, Daschle was basically going to cease and desist all fundraising efforts except for his own, something other Democratic presidential contenders are doing now. “It takes some of your star power away from the solicitation efforts,” Corzine said.

New campaign laws, however, will dry up a huge portion of direct contributions from Daschle to Democratic causes.

In the 2002 cycle, DASHPAC raised $5 million, with $2.7 million coming in the form of now-outlawed soft-money donations. One strategist said the $2.3 million in federal “hard” money in the last cycle would be hard to match in the 2004 cycle, because of Daschle’s own re-election and the voracious fundraising efforts of the presidential contenders.

And there will be dramatically less money to give to Congressional candidates, the DSCC and other party committees, gubernatorial candidates and state party organizations.

In 2002, the hard-money wing of DASHPAC gave $495,700 to House and Senate candidates, and another $125,000 to party committees, for a total of $620,700 in hard-dollar donations.

He gave three times that amount from the soft-money account of DASHPAC to non-federal candidates and state party committees.

Hardwick’s addition brings another layer of political talent to an already deep team of advisers to Daschle, a group that figured to be his top aides to a presidential campaign but still remain close. Those include Steve Hildebrand, who will serve as 2004 campaign manager, Dunn, chief of staff Pete Rouse, pollster Mark Mellman and a trio of outside advisers, John Podesta, Ron Klain and Joel Johnson.

Hardwick replaces Jonathan Parker, who had been DASHPAC’s primary political director and left to serve as national field director for the Service Employees International Union’s top health-care effort. Also joining DASHPAC is Mindy Myers, who was a top aide to and troubleshooter for Rouse in the leadership office. She will join DASHPAC as deputy political director.

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