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Daschle knows how to unify

The most underestimated politician in Washington is about to become a lot more visible and influential. Thanks to the 50-50 party split in the new Senate, its Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, is about to emerge as the man who is second only to the president in the bargaining power he possesses. Not bad for a fellow who became the Democrats' leader by a one-vote margin, 24-23, and who won his most recent election in 1998 with 162,884 votes _ one-twenty-seventh of the number his colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, received the same year.

But the Senate does not measure its members' standing by the size of their state or the majesty of their victory. What counts is personal ability and parliamentary skill, and there, the diminutive Daschle stands tall.

Since being chosen to succeed retiring Sen. George Mitchell of Maine in December 1994, by that one-vote edge over Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Daschle has demonstrated a political dexterity that is far greater than his public reputation. He has been remarkably successful in unifying the often quarrelsome and individually ambitious Senate Democrats into a voting bloc that, time after time, has forced concessions from the Republican majority. Now, with numerical parity, Daschle's leverage will likely be even larger.

Part of his secret of success is his camouflage. At 53, Daschle looks like a Boy Scout camp counselor _ polite, friendly and soft-spoken. Particularly in contrast with the more hard-edged Republicans, with whom he is often paired on television talk shows, he has given the Democrats a public image of reasonableness. As Sen. Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat, put it, "When you see Daschle on your little TV, he looks like character and integrity, not like he's trying to pull a sneaky trick on you."

But he is a partisan who has fought many a battle for President Clinton and (in the recent campaign) for Vice President Gore, while nursing Senate Democrats from their humiliating defeat of 1994 to a position where they can recapture control with the switch of a single seat.

When I asked some of his Democratic colleagues the source of Daschle's influence, they stressed his listening skills. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, co-sponsor, with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, of the main campaign finance legislation, said Daschle "has exceptional patience. It's no secret there were people in our caucus who were chafing at aspects of our bill. But he convinced them unity was important."

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said Daschle has a knack for "dealing with colleagues who have an exalted sense of self. He knows when to draw us together and when to let us go our own ways. When he says he will back you on something, he will back you to the end."

Perhaps the most interesting perspective came from Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who said he supported Dodd over Daschle in that 1994 vote. In retrospect, Biden said, "Daschle is tailor-made for the job. He never demands things, but he has taken more power than his predecessors ever had. He's a real consensus builder, but he's tough, so he may be the best person we could possibly have at this time."

Biden and several others commented that Daschle has been aggressive in asserting the Democrats' position on both procedural and policy matters, but still is able to maintain a good working relationship with Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican majority leader. That was particularly notable during the Clinton impeachment trial, when Daschle forged Democratic unity to block the effort to remove the president, even while smoothing out all the procedural questions in cooperation with Lott.

When I asked Daschle about the high marks he gets from his colleagues, he shifted credit to his mentors, from the late Mo Udall of Arizona, who took Daschle under his wing during Daschle's eight years in the House, to George Mitchell, who made Daschle his Senate protege.

He also said it helps to be from a small state like South Dakota. "I spend a few weeks every year, driving by myself through every county," he said. "It's energizing just to stop and watch the eagles and the buffalo. And I love to be there when the cafe opens at 6 a.m. and the guys come in for coffee, and we roll for who pays."

Next year will be harder, Daschle said, with no presidential veto to back him in his negotiations, and "no experience in how we work in a 50-50 Senate." Characteristically modest, he said, "Trent (Lott) and I may be able to agree, but we have to sell it to 98 others. Everyone is equal up here."

+ David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group