Daschle, Prairie Fireball

Since June, when he became Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle has assumed the mantle of leading opposition figure to President Bush. At the moment, though, the mantle may be slipping.

Mr. Daschle's currently playing a game of chicken with President Bush over who will compromise - or not - on an economic-stimulus package.

That may explain why he arrived especially early at a Monitor breakfast yesterday to greet the reporters. Just hours before, the GOP-run House had passed an economic stimulus package that stole some Democratic thunder. He came armed with a press release, and preferred to stand in addressing the usually relaxed, informal group.

Tactics like that in this latest political skirmish may be a good example of how the steely, quiet Democrat from South Dakota is faring.

Daschle admits he's up against a wartime president with a sky-high approval rating. So he's adopted a two-track strategy: praise the war effort, but be tough on domestic issues.

The wisdom of that strategy will be tested next November. Seventeen Senate Republicans are up for reelection, and four will retire. Only 14 Democrats are up for reelection.

In locking horns with Mr. Bush on the stimulus bill, Daschle hopes the president will take the rap for no stimulus at all. But he's staked his party's popularity on a demand to use tax revenues to continue healthcare benefits for recently unemployed workers. That looks minor against Bush's broader effort to revive the economy sooner than later.

Daschle's prestige has risen, along with that of most elected officials, in the wake of Sept. 11. And Bush's efforts to show solidarity with Congress have given Daschle added media exposure. But he also admits the bully pulpit remains with Bush and his cabinet.

The South Dakotan's disarming demeanor - largely patient, calm, and methodical - works well in the Senate. He's worked hard to keep a feisty Democratic caucus in line. But his power in the Senate turns on only one vote. And keeping that body in Democratic hands will require astute political maneuvering.

He does have one thing going for him: A few Republicans are trying to tar him as obstructionist, a charge that may not stick. Also, their personal attacks could also backfire.

Being so nice in how he speaks while acting with a spine of steel might just make him presidential material. But then, he's up against a president with the same qualities.

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