WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said yesterday he will not run for president, even as some staff members were preparing for a weekend announcement of a race for the White House.

“I’m not going to run for president because my passion is right here,” Daschle said during a briefing about the new session of Congress. “I must say I feel as good about this decision as any I’ve ever made. I’m very honored and gratified to have the opportunity to be Democratic leader.”

The 55-year-old South Dakota lawmaker said he will run for re-election to the Senate in 2004. He also said he may consider running for president in the future.

Daschle had talked enthusiastically about such a race recently, including Sunday night in his home state when he said after a meeting with constituents: “I think it’s fair to say I’m leaning in the direction of offering my candidacy for president.”

Associates say his wife and other family members had been upbeat about a White House run. He talked with his family Monday night about his pending decision.

“I’ve been coming to a point where I could make a decision for several weeks,” Daschle said. “But my family and I made the decision in the last 24 hours.”

Daschle’s announcement means the current field for the 2004 party nomination consists of fellow Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, along with outgoing Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is expected to enter the race but has not announced a final decision. And the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York has said he plans to run.

The field could grow further. Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida were meeting separately with Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe yesterday about factors to consider. Those close to Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware have said he is considering running.

Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee, was likely to have dominated the field if he had run. But he said in mid-December that he was not entering the race. Gephardt yesterday called Daschle a “treasured friend” and said he was “particularly grateful today that I won’t be facing him in a presidential debate.”

Even as Daschle bowed out of the presidential race, he criticized President Bush’s $674 billion, 10-year economic stimulus plan, which the president unveiled yesterday in Chicago.

“President Bush is proposing an economic plan that not only continues a failed economic policy that is wrong for the country now, but weakens our ability to meet America’s great national challenges for years to come,” Daschle said.

The soft-spoken Daschle has surprised even his own colleagues with his political acumen since emerging from a relatively obscure position to take over as the Democrats’ Senate leader in 1994.

After six years as minority leader, Daschle took over as Senate majority leader in 2001 after Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords switched from the Republican Party and tipped the balance of power to Democrats. That left Daschle with the power to set the agenda and confront the White House on policy and spending priorities.

But Daschle’s tenure as majority leader was cut short in November when Republicans regained control of the Senate in the November elections.

Daschle’s decision was so abrupt that political aides had scheduled an event Saturday in Aberdeen, S.D. to announce his campaign for the presidency. And they had scheduled trips to key early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

But Daschle said yesterday “I never changed my mind.

“I simply said all along that I was going to make up my mind prior to the session on Congress and prior to the end of January, I believe I said,” Daschle told reporters yesterday. “And I’ve done that.”

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