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Colleagues Starting To Defend Daschle

Senate Democrats plan to step up their efforts to defend Minority Leader Tom Daschle in the coming weeks, as they attempt to shield the South Dakota Democrat from GOP charges that he is blocking President Bush’s legislative agenda for partisan purposes.

The endeavor is significant because the Democratic Caucus has remained largely silent over the past couple years as Daschle has come under heavy fire from Republicans — most notably for his harsh assessment of Bush’s pre-war diplomacy.

“They have decided to use Senator Daschle to try to injure our party and our ability to push issues here in the Senate,” said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.). “We don’t have any choice but to respond and respond aggressively, and I think our Caucus is beginning to do that in a much more effective way.”

The Republican strategy of demonizing Daschle serves the dual purpose of painting Democrats as obstructionists in the runup to the 2004 elections as well as weakening the Minority Leader back home as he faces a potentially tough race for a fourth term in the Senate.

“Our colleagues need to understand that Tom needs to have a few more voices on his behalf,” added Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.). “We need to take some of the heat on our shoulders rather than letting him be the sole bearer.”

Corzine delivered a blistering floor speech last week excoriating the GOP for taking aim at Daschle, particularly a group in South Dakota that pledged to “destroy” the leader’s credibility in his home state with the stated goal to “end his public career by 2004.”

“I am downright disgusted when the debate of ideas degenerates into the politics of personal destruction and moves toward character assassination … especially when the target of a campaign of personal destruction is a good and decent man, Tom Daschle, who has spent his entire adult life in service to our nation,” Corzine said in a speech delivered Wednesday on the floor.

The speech was the last of a string of salvos that the DSCC threw at the group, the Rushmore Policy Council and its so-called Daschle Accountability Project. The DSCC hammered away at the group and provided a solid week’s worth of local coverage that questioned the group’s nonprofit status and its legality in terms of new campaign laws. The stories also questioned whether the group was connected to former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is considering a run against Daschle.

While none of the DSCC’s allegations was proven 100 percent accurate, by the end of last week the Rushmore Policy Council told local press that the $860,000 ad campaign would be dramatically scaled back from its original design.

The stepped-up defense from his colleagues comes as a group created in the last election cycle to counter the attacks on the Minority Leader, Daschle Democrats, has suspended operations.

“To comply with federal election laws concerning independent groups, Daschle Democrats regrets we will be unable to remain active for the months leading up to the re-election of Senator Daschle,” says a message on the group’s Web site.

Daschle Democrats raised money to pay for ads in South Dakota last year to counter the anti-Daschle media campaigns that were run by outside groups, such as the Club for Growth, in the state.

With Daschle Democrats on hiatus, some allies said it is even more imperative for Democrats to stand behind the Minority Leader, who will remain the top Democrat in the spotlight until the party chooses a presidential nominee next summer.

“If the administration and the Republicans in Congress decide to continue a relentless attack against Senator Daschle, our Caucus has an obligation to respond,” Dorgan said.

Still, in recent months there has not been an outpouring of support for Daschle from his Senate colleagues. In a speech after the 2002 election, former President Bill Clinton chastised Democrats for not doing enough to defend Daschle in that cycle.

Nevertheless, Democrats have still been slow to defend Daschle in recent months, which colleagues attribute to a confluence of factors.

One Democratic Senator said some people were angry that the Minority Leader attacked Bush on the eve of the Iraq war by saying he was “saddened that this president failed so miserably that we’re now forced to war.”

The comments sparked an explosive response from top GOP lawmakers, including Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), and served as fodder for conservative talk-radio hosts for days.

This Democratic Senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said some Democrats also feared raising the ire of the politically nimble White House by backing Daschle while Bush’s popularity soared.

“I think opinion is divided on issues and I think they were overwhelmed by Bush’s numbers,” said the Senator. “They tried not to shake the trees too hard, and I think that caused the abandonment of support for the leader.”

A second Senator agreed that some of his colleagues “were afraid” but added the reasons were perhaps rooted in laziness.

“I think it was more lethargy,” said the Senator, who also asked not to be named.

Democratic Senators said this renewed effort is not an organized, coordinated plan but rather a conscientious effort to defend Daschle when and where needed.

“I think what we have got to do is work with Tom and when we feel that they are reaching a point that it needs to be answered, we are going to do it,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who serves as Daschle’s Assistant Floor Leader.

Democrats made a similar pledge in April 2002 to mount an inside defense of Daschle by using floor speeches and news conferences to counter Republican attacks of the Minority Leader. That effort mostly fell flat.

But Corzine said he’s made the pitch to his colleagues that defending the Minority Leader from the GOP attacks is in everyone’s best interest, because the safer Daschle is at home politically the more time he can spend on the fundraising trail for other Democratic candidates.

Daschle is taking his re-election seriously, especially after playing a key role in helping Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) squeak out a narrow victory over Thune last year.

Daschle told Roll Call in an interview last month that he expects to raise “well over” $10 million for his campaign, doubling the amount raised and spent by Thune in his unsuccessful challenge to Johnson. Raising so much money for his own race has dramatically detracted from Daschle’s ability to raise money for his leadership political action committee and cut into his time raising money for the DSCC and individual Senate candidates.

In the first five months of 2001, for example, Daschle raised more than $411,000 in federal dollars for his leadership PAC, DASHPAC. In the first three months of 2003, however, Daschle raised $30,200 for the PAC.

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