AS THE PRESIDENTIAL-CAMPAIGN BATTLEGROUND SHIFTS TO Washington, Tom Daschle seems an odd candidate for the role he is about to play as President Clinton's first line of defense on Capitol Hill. A slight and boyish-looking man of 48, he had never managed a major bill before becoming Senate Democratic leader last year. Almost incapable of eye-to-eye engagement with the television camera, he prefers to read his speeches, softly and deliberately, from behind a pair of glasses. "He looks like a choirboy," sighs veteran South Carolina Democrat Fritz Hollings, a fire breather.

But to the surprise of his allies and his foes,...

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