Daschle Trip Puts Gossips in Overdrive

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With partisan nerves on edge, an Arizona getaway by Sen. Tom Daschle, the incoming Democratic majority leader, was just enough to set the political world to jangling Friday.

The weekend trip took Daschle to the red-rock retreat of GOP Sen. John McCain--a focus of late of intensive party-jumping speculation.

Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, is set to become majority leader early next week, thanks to the decision by James M. Jeffords of Vermont to leave the Republican Party and become an independent. The move will give Democrats a 50-49-1 edge in the Senate, which has been split 50-50.

In Jeffords' wake, political insiders have speculated about others who may follow. McCain, in particular, has been a locus of that attention, given his sour relations with President Bush, who bested him in a bitter fight last year for the GOP nomination. Since then, McCain has split with Bush on a number of issues, including most recently the president's signature tax cut.

Given the tense atmosphere, the Daschle-McCain retreat today in Sedona, Ariz., suddenly assumed great significance, or at least seemed to--never mind that it was evidently planned months ago and that both camps called it a social visit.

"A more prudent politician might say I shouldn't do it now. It'll look funny," said one source close to McCain, who declined to be identified. "But McCain has never been driven by those considerations. In fact, he may relish the fact he can do it in this environment."

Separately, a top McCain advisor said the Arizona senator has no intention of switching parties.

"I know John has no plans nor a cause today to leave the Republican Party," John Weaver, who was chief strategist for McCain's presidential run and who remains close to the senator, said Friday night.

The Washington Post, quoting unidentified sources close to McCain, said in today's editions that the senator is talking with advisers about leaving the GOP and challenging Bush in 2004 as a third-party candidate. But such a move is not imminent, the story said.

As to whether McCain might bolt the GOP and challenge Bush as an independent, Weaver said, "That's something that has not once been discussed."

McCain, who has split with the White House on several key issues, had been scheduled to dine with Bush late last week. But with the Jeffords story dominating the news, Bush and McCain agreed to cancel the engagement so as not to spark speculation that McCain needed to be wooed to stay in the party.

For his part, Daschle said Friday that no other party switches appeared in the offing.

"At this point, I can say [there is] no indication that I have that any other senators are contemplating seriously another change," Daschle said in a meeting with Los Angeles Times editors and reporters.

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