WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota unexpectedly announced Tuesday that he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, stunning many supporters and potential rivals who had assumed that his candidacy was assured.
In recent weeks, Daschle had hinted strongly that he would join the growing field of Democrats seeking to unseat President Bush. One of his state's leading newspapers even reported Tuesday on preparations for an announcement this weekend in Daschle's hometown of Aberdeen.
Instead, the 55-year-old Democratic leader joined former Vice President Al Gore in choosing to sit the race out. Daschle declared that he would rather fight Bush from the Senate floor than from the presidential campaign trail.
"After careful reflection, I've concluded at this moment in our history, with so many important decisions to be made about our nation's future, my passion lies here in the Senate," he said.
He told reporters at a news conference on Capitol Hill that he would seek reelection to a fourth term as senator in 2004, but he did not rule out running for president at a later time.
His decision relieved many Senate Democrats, who privately preferred that their leader stay put -- some because they are running for president themselves and others because they believe that he can best serve the party on Capitol Hill. Among other concerns, Democrats worried that they would have struggled to hold Daschle's South Dakota seat had he left the Senate; in November's contest for the state's other Senate seat, Democrat Tim Johnson won by only 524 votes.
Daschle's decision to bypass the presidential contest could encourage other senators who have been considering a run -- such as Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida -- to jump into the race.
For the announced and presumed contenders, Daschle's decision creates new opportunities to pick up support in Iowa, which will hold the first Democratic caucus early next year. Daschle, whose home state borders Iowa, had been expected to run strongly there.
Now, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the former House minority leader and declared presidential contender, is considered the front-runner in Iowa. Gephardt praised Daschle on Tuesday, saying in a statement, "I am particularly grateful today that I won't be facing him in a presidential debate."
Three Senate Democrats are declared or potential candidates: John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Outgoing Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont is another declared candidate. The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York has also said he's running.
Daschle's decision could raise his stature on both sides of the aisle in the Senate, where he has served as minority and majority leader for the last eight years.
Republicans, who trained heavy fire on him for the last two years as the leading obstacle to the Bush agenda, will no longer be able to dismiss his actions as motivated by presidential ambition. Democrats, too, will be able to count on him to speak for the party and not just for himself.
Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) said he called Daschle late last month to urge him not to run because he wanted him to remain a Senate leader. Calling himself "delighted" by the decision, Carper predicted that it would boost Daschle's credibility on the Senate floor. "We'll hopefully be judged more on the policies and ideas we propose," Carper said.
Said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Daschle's top lieutenant: "This is the best thing for the caucus." But it was a tough decision, Reid said, adding: "I think he had a real shot at being president. He would have been strong in Iowa."
Indeed, before Tuesday's surprising announcement, the lure of the presidency appeared by all accounts to have enticed Daschle to run. On Tuesday, under the headline "He's Running," the Sioux Falls Argus Leader said Daschle's associates had concluded that his presidential candidacy was certain to be launched.
But Daschle said that after consulting with his family, he had decided to remain focused on the Senate. "Right now, this is where my heart is," he told reporters. "This is what moves and excites me.... I belong here and I want to stay here for now."