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Ethanol Makes Strange Bedfellows in South Dakota

Politics: A trip to the Plains shows the complex relationship between Bush and Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

April 25, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) are like two feuding dance partners: They are doing their best to step on each other's toes but not have anyone notice.

They flew separately halfway across the country on Wednesday, their destination an ethanol plant where together they could promote the corn-based gasoline additive as a means to reduce the nation's reliance on imported petroleum.

Daschle then left the state. Bush stayed, speaking to political audiences and giving South Dakotans every reason he could muster to vote against Daschle's Democratic Senate colleague, Tim Johnson.

Bush was campaigning for Rep. John R. Thune, the Republican whom the president, during a private dinner last year, helped persuade to launch a Senate run.

The Johnson-Thune race is likely to be one of the closest, most hard-fought in a year when Senate control could hinge on a single seat.

That's the margin of the current Democratic majority in the Senate, which means that sometimes Bush and Daschle must work together, as on the ethanol issue.

As Bush noted during their joint appearance Wednesday: "Tom and I have spent some quality time together. I invite him to the Oval Office for breakfast."

But at other times, they want nothing more than to undermine each other.

At a Thune rally Wednesday night, Bush was blunt about his preferences. "John Thune should be the next U.S. senator from South Dakota," he told more than 5,000 people at the Sioux Falls Convention Center. "I like his values. I respect his intellect. . . . He's not afraid to stand up for what he believes and it's refreshing to hear his voice among the shrill partisans in Washington, D.C."

The Bush-Daschle relationship has been in the spotlight ever since the South Dakotan was elevated to Senate majority leader last spring when Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont bolted the GOP.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush made a point of cultivating Daschle as an ally. Daschle's support was key to the president's ability to respond to the attacks with united congressional support.

Bush now holds nearly weekly breakfast meetings with Daschle and other congressional leaders, as he mentioned Wednesday. And following his speech to Congress shortly after the attacks, Bush greeted Daschle with a bear hug--an embrace that became an emblem of the post-Sept. 11 moratorium on partisanship.

But by the end of the year, Daschle had evolved from First Pal into First Adversary, battling the administration on many issues.

Republicans responded with a concerted effort to depict Daschle as the personification of Democratic obstructionism, charging he used his power to block Bush's proposed economic stimulus package, the president's nominees for judicial appointments and other White House initiatives.

GOP-allied advocacy groups also have aired a steady stream of television ads in South Dakota criticizing Daschle--even though he is not up for reelection until 2004.

Daschle's supporters produced a television ad of their own in South Dakota this week, welcoming Bush to the state but calling on him to tell "out-of-state special interests" to stop the attacks.

Despite the dueling ads, Daschle was in the front row as Bush spoke at the Dakota Ethanol plant in Wentworth, S.D. Johnson, Thune and South Dakota's Republican governor, William Janklow, also were in the front row.

"Tom, I'm honored you'd come," Bush said.

Not mentioned was that Daschle's presence had been the subject of awkward back-and-forth conversations between his office and the White House. At one point Tuesday, Daschle said he would not make the trip because he had been excluded from another event at which Bush and Thune were to meet with farmers for a "round-table discussion."

He eventually agreed to go to the speech after the White House excluded Thune from the round-table.

Bush and Daschle have joined forces in backing a provision in the energy bill now that would significantly increase the amount of ethanol added to gasoline to help reduce pollution. On Tuesday, Daschle helped defeat a bid to delete the provision--an effort led by Democratic senators from California and New York who fear the ethanol requirement would dramatically hike the price of auto fuel in their states.

"I said when I was running for president I supported ethanol, and I meant it," Bush said Wednesday. "I support it now, because not only do I know it's important for the [agricultural] sector of our economy, it's an important part of making sure we become less reliant on foreign sources of energy."

After the speech, Bush stepped down from his stage, sought out Daschle and gave him a handshake and pat on the back.

"He said he'd kiss me, but people would talk," Daschle said moments later.

The Senate majority leader added: "It's always great to have the president of the United States talk about agriculture, talk about ethanol."

That's policy.

Then there's the politics.

As Daschle returned to Washington to push the Democratic agenda, Bush focused his attention on trying to put him back in the Senate minority. He was the main attraction at a Thune fund-raiser--which White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said would garner $350,000, the most collected at a single event in South Dakota history--and then the Thune rally.

*

Gerstenzang reported from South Dakota, Hook from Washington.

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