Kent Conrad: The Statistician

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Senator Kent Conrad, North Dakota.

In 2001 the staff of the senate rules Committee called Kent Conrad's office with a complaint—and a solution. The North Dakota Democrat was using more charts than all the other Senators combined, so to free printing time for others, they gave him his own equipment. Last month during his 37-minute opening statement in the battle over the budget, Conrad went through 37 charts. "We call him chart man," teases Republican Whip Mitch McConnell. McConnell grudgingly concedes, though, that "[Conrad] does a good job of representing [the Democrats'] arguments."

Conrad, 58, long ago took the advice party leaders give Senate newcomers: pick one area and master it. That gives you clout and guarantees that someone on your side knows what he or she is talking about. Over 20 years, Conrad, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, has made himself the king of that most important part of the Senate's business—raising and spending the taxpayers' money. "As I read history, nothing is more important than a strong and growing economy," he says. "I think that's been the genius of America, and I believe these runaway debts threaten it all."

Orphaned at 5 when his parents were killed in a car accident, Conrad, along with his brothers, was raised by his grandparents and by an uncle and aunt. He's careful in his habits: he spends modestly on travel, he balances his checkbook daily, and when he drinks, it's never more than two cocktaills. He and the Democrats helped lead an unsuccessful fight to prevent the Bush Administration from raising the U.S. debt limit to $9 trillion and from passing a $2.8 trillion budget that is projected to increase the deficit to at least $350 billion this year.

Conrad launched his political career as a tax commissioner in Bismarck, rooting through phone and tax records to dig up evidence of tax fraud by out-of-state companies. His budget expertise came in handy when President Bush, pushing a plan for partially privatizung Social Security last year, put the hard sell on him. Bush first tried by flying with Conrad to Fargo, N.D., then, after they returned, kept the pressure on by inviting him to the White House, where he dropped hints about election-year vulnerability for red-state Democrats. But Conrad, whose honorary Sioux name translates as "Never Turns Back," stood firm in his opposition to the plan. "I could never support something that added dramatically to the debt," Conrad says. "I told him, 'Count me out.'"