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 businessraising 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."
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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.'"