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Daschle's Woes Test An Insider's Insider

Katie Couric speaks with President Obama, who admits that he "messed up" in his selection of Tom Daschle for Health and Human Services secretary.

Like Daschle, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton can lay claim to an impressive network of insiders, developed during her husband's eight years in the Oval Office and her eight in the Senate. Many have worked for Daschle as well. But the Clinton coalition has become fractured and she carries the lingering scars of a contentious fight with Obama in the Democratic presidential primaries.

By contrast, Daschle and Obama share an uncommon bond, forged during the 2004 campaign. Many -- including aides to Daschle -- had expected him to seek the White House. But the South Dakotan lost a nasty reelection fight, and the young Illinois legislator burst onto the national scene and into the U.S. Senate.

"Tom was the first guy to go with Obama" in the pre-presidential campaign season, said Frederick H. Graefe, a Washington lobbyist and one of Daschle's oldest friends. "He told him, 'Run now, don't wait, don't make the mistake I made. I'll give you everybody I have -- the campaign team, the personal staff, leadership staff, fundraising lists -- lock, stock and barrel.' "

"It was a ready-made team," Graefe added.

As a Senate leader with authority over not just his personal staff but several policy and campaign committees as well, Daschle employed more than 100 people at any given time. From 1994 to 2005, even more than the Clinton White House, "the University of Daschle" was the place to learn the inner workings of governing, Baker said.

More than half a dozen Daschle veterans hold high-ranking White House positions, most notably Pete Rouse, who was his chief of staff and is now senior adviser to the president, and Phil Schiliro, Obama's legislative liaison.

Daschle-ites are also taking positions at the Agriculture Department and the Democratic National Committee. Some of his closest allies are among Obama's most trusted outside advisers, a select group whose influence comes not from a title but from a personal bond. They include John D. Podesta, the Center for American Progress president who masterminded Obama's transition; lawyer Robert Bauer; and political consultant Anita Dunn.

"The spokes of the wheel all lead to Pete Rouse," said Dunn, who has deep ties to both men. "When Pete went to work for Barack, what Barack got -- and I don't think he realized it -- was the only network in Democratic circles that from both a policy and political perspective came close to the Clinton network."

Rouse got his start in Washington in the early 1970s when he and Daschle were young aides to then-Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.). In 1986, he began an 18-year stint with Daschle.

When Daschle lost in 2004, he encouraged his team to sign on with Obama. Rouse agreed and eventually recruited many of Obama's top aides, including Schiliro and the husband-and-wife team Dan Pfeiffer and Sarah Feinberg.

If confirmed, Daschle will be "HHS secretary plus," said Dunn, referring to the additional role as head of the new White House Office of Health Reform, which has a small but well-situated office in the basement of the West Wing.

If Daschle were working at HHS headquarters, his "embeds," as Dunn calls them, could provide "an extraordinary level of information and access that most Cabinet secretaries don't have."

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