Sept. 5, 2001 -- Every August, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle takes a road trip across South Dakota, his home state, at times travelling in a rented car without an entourage. Nightline's Chris Bury spent a few days with him on the road, discussing Washington, his relations with President Bush, and whether he might run for president himself.
CHRIS BURY (VO) For Tom Daschle, driving these long, lonely stretches of South Dakota is more than a way to touch base with his home state. It's also an escape from the stuffy rituals of Washington and the relentless pressures of his new role.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE You get tired of wearing a jacket and a tie. You get tired of sitting at conference tables. And you get tired of all of the intensity every time you walk in one of those rooms. So this is the antidote. This is the way to relieve that pressure and all of that tension and the fatigue that comes with all of those meetings.
CHRIS BURY (VO) On this trip, Senator Daschle has not only shed his jacket and tie but the entourage that serves as a second skin to someone like the senate majority leader in Washington. Here there are no aides, no driver, no press pack, just a rented red Pontiac and a map of the open road. His plan is to visit all 66 counties in South Dakota?.
Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the highest-ranking Democrat in the land, just shows up unannounced at farms, banks, and of course the South Dakota state fair. Here most people he meets seem pleasantly surprised and genuinely proud. But they're not impressed by his title. One woman gives him hell for his position on a local dam project.
2ND WOMAN Don't uh-huh me. I am tired of the lies and the (word censored by station) you politicians are giving us.
CHRIS BURY (VO) Love him or hate him, South Dakotans call Senator Daschle by his first name.
Out here I notice that people invariably refer to you as Tom.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE Yeah, I think it's probably the Midwest informality, and it's really what I prefer to be called. I've never been one very big on titles, so I like to keep it that way.
CHRIS BURY Is part of the reason you do this because of the perception that you might be seen as too big for your breeches after going to Washington?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE Yeah, I think that in part. I think when I went to the Senate I was real concerned about not losing touch.
A Prairie Populist
CHRIS BURY (VO) Wherever he travels, the conversation inevitably turns to the nuts and bolts of economic survival in the state that largely missed out on the prosperity of the '90s.... The long declining farm economy is slowly killing off entire towns. In his annual pilgrimage back to South Dakota he returns to a place that is an unlikely base for the most visible leader of the national Democrats. Indeed, South Dakota is predominantly white, rural, and Republican.
Meeting with farmers in the back room of a livestock auction barn, Daschle sounds like a prairie populist, blaming big oil for hiking the price of gasoline.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE I think that people worry about big government. They should be a lot more worried about big corporations and the dominance they have in our lives today.
CHRIS BURY (VO) But many farmers here also believe that President Bush's energy plan pushing more exploration for oil would help lower their costs. And at the state fair one of them angrily scolds Senator Daschle for leading the opposition to drilling in the Arctic.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE We ought to agree to disagree.
4TH MAN I don't think you represent me anymore.
CHRIS BURY (VO) In this socially conservative state where Republicans have carried the last nine presidential elections, Daschle's record as a strong supporter of abortion rights is also a perennial sore spot.
3RD WOMAN And we would like to have you vote the way we think, and you will find that most people in South Dakota are very pro-life.
CHRIS BURY (VO) So for Tom Daschle seen as a liberal to moderate Democrat, driving these roads is part of a balancing act that keeps him in office. And now that he's the national face of the Democratic opposition, tending to the fences back home, he acknowledge to me, is more important than ever to his political survival.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE Well, you couldn't win as a Democrat without Republican support, and, you know, it's impossible for Democrats to be successful because we just don't have enough of them. So you've got to have Republican independent support, and I've been lucky to have the friends that I do in the Republican ranks.
Support from Republicans
CHRIS BURY (VO) In an airplane hangar outside Mobridge, South Dakota, in plain view in a heard of buffalo, Tom Daschle makes a rare scheduled stop on this road trip. An old friend knew he would be in the area, so he put together a barbecue and invited close to 100 guests. The odd thing is, nearly everyone of them is a registered Republican, including the host of the party, grocery store owner Benjamin Stowic.
You are a rock red Republican?
BENJAMIN STOWIC Baptized Republican.
CHRIS BURY Yet you support Tom Daschle?
BENJAMIN STOWIC Absolutely.
CHRIS BURY Not always, though.
BENJAMIN STOWIC Not always. Years ago I even campaigned against him and did a television commercial for a friend of mine who is a Republican running against him. You know, this is too small a state not to really be aware of who the competition is. And once you get around Tom Daschle, you stay close to him, you learn more about him, and he's real, he's decent, he's all the things that Republicans said he wasn't.
CHRIS BURY The publisher of the Mobridge Tribune, who calls himself a conservative Republican, says Daschle's new standing as the country's most visible Democrat won't necessarily hurt him at home.
LARRY ATKINSON, PUBLISHER MOBRIDGE TRIBUNE We all know that he is the Democratic leader, that he is going to push the Democratic policy, that he is going to fight for Democratic issues. A lot of us are Republicans. We understand it goes with the game. It doesn't mean you can't like him. In this part of the world we look at things. As we can disagree on an issue we can sit down and knock each other out on an issue, but when we're done, let's put our arms around each other and go have a cup of coffee and be friends again.
CHRIS BURY Indeed, these Republicans give Democratic Daschle a standing ovation.
CHRIS BURY (VO) Politics, as practiced here, may be far more civil here than in Washington, but Senator Daschle's skill at reaching beyond partisan lines could clearly come in handy should his aspirations run to a higher office. And wherever this road trip took him, the topic came up again and again.
4TH WOMAN You did a good job.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE Thank you.
4TH WOMAN Yeah, you're going to run for president now, right?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE I don't know.
CHRIS BURY What is the best reason you can think of for not running for president?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE Well, I think the best reason is just to—that I don't know that I want the job. I mean, I respect those who sought it and appreciate the magnitude of the position, but you have got to have the fire in the belly, and that's a question that I and my family would want to think about a lot more. Do we have the fire in the belly to put up with what you have to put up with to run for national office?
CHRIS BURY (VO) It is one of the things he can ponder on a daily four-mile run. Off camera he is curious about the demands of a presidential campaign, asking us what it's like. There are other questions, too. Does this soft-spoken man have the charisma to run for national office?
I read somewhere that you once described yourself as shy and intimidated by people.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE At an early age I was. When I was growing up in grade school I didn't feel very comfortable around people. And it was hard for me. I was shy. I guess I have grown out of it, but I still consider myself—I'm not—I'm not a boisterous, you know, guy who would go out there and be the life of the party.
CHRIS BURY You think you have a lot of charisma?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE I don't know. I have what I got. I am comfortable in my clothes.
CHRIS BURY (VO) In some ways, even Senator Daschle admits his road trips are good training for the endless inanities of a presidential campaign. In Eureka, for example he is honor-bound to buy a kuchen, a German pastry that is South Dakota's state desert.
As a career politician, senator and congressman, how many kuchen do you think you've eaten in your lifetime?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE I have eaten a lot of kuchen. And for the record, it was all good.
CHRIS BURY (VO) Yet the very politeness that comes so easily to Tom Daschle is often confused with softness by rivals who don't know him well, according to his old Republican friend Larry Atkinson.
LARRY ATKINSON His quiet demeanor can be kind of deceiving for someone who...
CHRIS BURY People misread him?
LARRY ATKINSON ...mis-read him as not having a back bone or not having the ability to get something done politically.
CHRIS BURY Mistake his niceness as weakness.
LARRY ATKINSON Absolutely. He is tough as nails. If you are up against him politically, he can be as tough as he needs to be.
CHRIS BURY (VO) For now, the majority leader insists he has set aside all presidential ambitions while he prepares to do battle with the White House this fall. Even on his South Dakota road trip, the world of Washington is never far away.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE I think it's very likely now the administration will have to use medicare and social security trust funds to pay for the...
Relations With President Bush
CHRIS BURY (VO) As Congress returns from the summer recess, the capital is bracing for a fight over spending, and it's clear that Republicans are singling out Senator Daschle and his fellow Democratic leader Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt. They recently ran this ad in South Dakota, Missouri and Washington, DC.
VOICE Tell them Americans had enough in fighting and hypocrisy. America needs solutions.
CHRIS BURY (VO) At the end of the day driving around South Dakota last week, Senator Daschle sat down at a picnic table in Selby to talk with me about the battles ahead, and I asked him if he saw himself as the chief adversary of the president.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE I don't. I don't like to think of myself as a chief adversary. I would like to think of myself as one of the leaders of a Democratic party in the Congress that has an agenda that we feel very strongly about that we would like to work with the president in trying to ultimately enact. That's what I see. I don't want the adversarial and confrontational persona or perception to be the dominant part of my life as the majority leader.
CHRIS BURY At the same time, as these commercials indicate, the fall is already gearing up to be a big fight over the surplus, how to spend it, social security. These are not issues which are easily compromised given the current climate.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE That's exactly right. And that's probably the most disappointing and disheartening — is that because the circumstances are what they are, you find very little maneuvering room. You really don't have the ability to say, "Well, there is ample opportunity here for common ground if we just work together." They are resolute in their determination to fight for the tax cut and all that it means to them over the next 10 years. We're almost equally as resolute in our belief that it is folly in terms of fiscal policy given all the ramifications that we're beginning to appreciate even now.
CHRIS BURY How are your personal relations with the White House? If you're in a legislative jam, can you get on the phone and call Karl Rove or George Bush and get through and make a deal? I mean, do you have good enough personal relations where that kind of thing is easy to do?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE I would think I have good enough personal relations. I don't know that I'll know until that time comes. I wish they were better. I wish there was more frequent and routine communication. I wish we had a better relationship because it has happened in the past. There is no reason it can't happen now.
CHRIS BURY You're saying you don't have a good relationship now?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE Well, I'm not saying I don't have a good relationship. I'm just saying that I wish it were a better one. I think that it could be better, and I think both the president and those of us working in leadership on the Democratic side have to work towards that goal.
CHRIS BURY How would you characterize it, strained? What word would you use?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE I guess I would use the word — let's see, what would I use? I would say that it's a cool relationship, not as warm as I would like. I wouldn't say that it's necessarily strained because we do talk, but I would say that our contact is infrequent and that there really isn't as much of an opportunity for us to work through these issues as I wish there could be.
The Real Tom Daschle
CHRIS BURY (VO) Inevitably, the question has to come about Daschle's desire to seek the big job at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
After all your time in Washington, nearly three decades now, have you reached a point where you can sort of look at the White House and say, ‘Well, I can do that'?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE Well, I think that most people in Washington feel that they've got the self confidence and the wherewithal within themselves to take on these roles. It is something I feel fairly confident about. I think if you can be the majority leader of the United States Senate, you can probably take on other responsibilities as well.
CHRIS BURY Which is the real Tom Daschle, the one who kicks around out here in South Dakota or the one who puts on the English shirts and is the majority leader of the Democratic party of the U.S. Senate?
SEN. TOM DASCHLE I don' know. I guess I'm not sure that they're in conflict. You know, this is who I am, and I think you try to take who I am to Washington, and that's who I am there. You know, it's the same person. Maybe the clothing is a little different, but I would hope that the person inside it is the same. I have the same — the same view of things. I try to do the same things within my relationships with people as I do here. I don't think I'm that much different.