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Daschle Speech to Look Homeward

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle will accuse the Bush administration tonight of being controlled by big business and call on the nation to send Sen. John Kerry to the White House in a prime-time address sprinkled with indirect references to his own re-election battle back home.

While the South Dakota Democrat will not mention President Bush by name, he will argue Kerry better represents the needs of the middle class and will shun the influence of powerful special interests if voters elect the Massachusetts Democrat in November.

“In the Kerry administration, the needs of regular families will be moved from the back burner to the front burner. Boardroom priorities won’t crowd out kitchen table values,” Daschle is expected to say, according to advance excerpts of his speech provided to Roll Call. “And the era of Enron, Halliburton, and other special interests undermining our common purpose will come to an end.”

The Minority Leader will be one of several high-profile speakers to take the podium at the Fleet Center, and his remarks will be scrutinized hundreds of miles away by former Rep. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) campaign strategists.

“Tom Daschle is the leader of the national Democratic Party, and if he embraces the candidacy of John Kerry in Boston, he can’t run away from John Kerry when he is in South Dakota,” said Dick Wadhams, Thune’s campaign manager. “If he doesn’t embrace John Kerry in his speech tomorrow, he has repudiated his national ticket, which would be news itself.”

But Daschle is not shying away from his public support of Kerry, with whom he has served in the Senate since 1987, or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the presumptive Democratic vice presidential candidate, who was elected in 1998.

“John Kerry and John Edwards both understand that doing right by America means accepting moral responsibility of making America stronger, smarter, and more secure,” Daschle is slated to say. “And it means changing the way business is done in Washington.”

Dan Pfeiffer, Daschle’s campaign spokesman, dismissed the Thune’s campaign assertion that the Minority Leader doesn’t want to be too closely aligned to Kerry in this election.

“Senator Daschle would be proud to campaign with Senators Kerry and Edwards anytime, anywhere including anywhere in South Dakota,” Pfeiffer said.

Still, Daschle is running for re-election in a state where Bush handily defeated former Vice President Al Gore by 22 percent in 2000. And he is not taking anything for granted. He has put in place an experienced political team that was prepared to run a national campaign for Daschle before he decided against a run for the White House. When Daschle chose instead to run for re-election, the campaign workers stayed on the ground in South Dakota with a new mission: to try to help Daschle win a fourth term.

Pfeiffer said Bush is not nearly as popular in South Dakota as he was in the two previous election cycles, attributing the president’s drop in the polls to a sluggish economy and uneasiness about the war in Iraq.

Daschle is expected to specifically mention Iraq in his speech, where he will question the administration’s decision to pump money into the war-torn country at the expense of America’s domestic priorities.

“South Dakotans reject the defeatist view that we have enough money to rebuild Iraq, but can’t afford to take care of our needs here,” Daschle is expected to say. “They wonder how we can build new schools in Iraq, while so many American schools are crumbling.”

While Daschle will embrace Kerry in his speech tonight, the Minority Leader plans to leave Boston before the Massachusetts Senator formally accepts the Democratic presidential nomination on Thursday night. Daschle, instead, will return to South Dakota on Wednesday to watch Kerry’s speech with political supporters.

Wadhams said he is not surprised Kerry has chosen to return to South Dakota, given the big flap that erupted several weeks earlier after it was erroneously reported that liberal filmmaker Michael Moore embraced Daschle at the opening of his controversial documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

“I suppose one could think he is afraid of another hug controversy by escaping town before Kerry arrives so he won’t be caught in an embrace with him,” Wadhams said.