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.
His success is owed in large measure to economic populism, his clout as Democratic leader and his personality. Daschle is known for visiting each of South Dakota's 66 counties every August, his strong constituent service operation and his ability to help South Dakota farmers win government aid for their crops.
Becoming majority leader after Sen. Jim Jeffords, Ind.-Vt., decided to caucus with Democrats, Daschle was the point man for Democrats who sought to temper President Bush's agenda and advance proposals of their own. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the tenor of his leadership and forced Democrats to ratchet down their criticism of the president. Daschle directly experienced terror when his office received an anthrax-laden letter.
In 2002, Democrats began to take the legislative offensive more fully, seizing on corporate scandals and a ballooning deficit to claim that Republican policies prevented an economic recovery. Daschle was instrumental in ensuring that a corporate responsibility bill passed both chambers.
But in the fall, he was criticized for his inability to articulate a simple economic counterproposal to the president. And his tenure as majority leader was cut short by the Democrats' loss of the Senate in the November midterm elections.
His addition to the presidential race would have significantly crowded the field; he shares an ideology and a base of support with Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., who announced his exploratory committee last week.
Focusing on Winning Back the Senate
With his focus on the Senate, Daschle will be able to spend time raising money and recruiting qualified candidates for 2004.
"The nation would have loved you as a presidential candidate," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told Daschle. "But now you're with us."
"And wouldn't it be nice if, with such a tight margin in the Senate, in 2004, if Democrats win it back, he'd be the Senate majority leader again," said Todd Taylor, an influential Iowa Democrat and member of the state's Legislature.
Democrats had worried that if too many party leaders ran for president, the fund-raising well would quickly dry.
At 9:30 this morning, Daschle telephoned his friend Tim Johnson, the junior Democratic senator from South Dakota, and said that the two would continue to serve together.
A little while later, he told Gephardt.
"I'm grateful to count Tom as a treasured friend and colleague and I am particularly grateful today that I won't be facing him in a presidential debate," Gephardt said.
Daschle finds himself in a strong position to seek re-election. Two Republican House members — John Thune, who lost a tight race for Johnson's in November, and newly elected member at large Bill Janklow — had expressed interest in running for Daschle's seat if it would be open.
"Certainly Sen. Daschle is a formidable opponent," said Laura Schoen, executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party.
And Republicans may yet get the chance to take on Daschle as a presidential candidate.
"There may come a time in my future that a national candidacy is something that I will entertain," he said.
"I relish the idea of a campaign but I have one at home," he said. "And I'm looking forward to that."
ABCNEWS Political Director Mark Halperin, and ABCNEWS' Linda Douglass and Elizabeth Wilner contributed to this article.