Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, just inches away from declaring his presidential candidacy, abruptly decided that his heart lay in serving his home state of South Dakota in the Congress.
"I'm not running for president because my passion is right here, and I must say I feel as good about this decision as any I've ever made," Daschle said.
But as late as Monday night, his advisers were telling ABCNEWS that the senator was on the verge of forming an exploratory committee. The Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader reported in its editions today that Daschle was set to announce his presidential bid on Saturday in his hometown of Aberdeen.
Quoting friends and close advisers, the newspaper said that its "interviews with nearly a dozen people Monday — all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity — indicated that Daschle had decided to seek the nation's highest office and that the only question was when he would formally announce it."
Daschle had plans for a whirlwind tour through the early-primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Dakota. He had set up a solid network of fund-raisers and planned to employ the services of several top Democratic strategists. In a conference call Monday night, he told staffers he was leaning toward a run.
It was not immediately clear why he changed his mind so quickly.
Following His Heart
"Up until that decision, we had to be prepared to take whatever course based upon that decision would follow," Daschle said. "If I had made the decision to run for president, we wanted to be up and running and we wanted to be ready to go."
Democrats close to Daschle said that for most of December, he had been reluctant to run. They said he relished his role as leader of the Senate Democrats and did not want to relinquish his ability to shape the party's agenda and message.
As late as Monday afternoon, though, Daschle discussed the logistics of a presidential campaign with advisers.
In the end, said Democrats familiar with his thinking, Daschle did not have enough fire in his belly to continue as leader and run for president.
Daschle said today he chose the option closer to his heart: "The fights, the important debates, the cause, the agenda, the things we believe in are going be fought out every single day, right here in the Senate."
His state's proximity to northwestern Iowa, his aggressive pursuit of subsidies for farmers in the Midwest, his longtime support of organized labor and liberal social causes assured his competitiveness in the Iowa caucuses. He faced a more difficult challenge in New Hampshire, where voters knew him mostly by his national persona as spokesman for the Democratic Party. He hasn't visited the state in at least two years.
The Democrats’ Point Man
Daschle was South Dakota's at-large House member until 1986, when he defeated incumbent Republican James Abdnor. For his come-from-behind victory, Daschle was appointed to the Senate Finance Committee, placing him in the maw of debates over taxes, budget and economic policies. He was re-elected by large margins in 1992 and 1998. Democrats chose him as their leader in 1994.
Daschle, a liberal, was successful despite the conservative politics of his state, whose voters selected George W. Bush in 2000 by a strong margin. Republicans hold a 10 percentage point registration edge in South Dakota. On social issues, particularly gun rights, gay rights and abortion, Daschle is decidedly to the left of his constituents.