Frist's Tennessee Recess Is Puzzling for a Presidential Hopeful

Sen. Bill Frist discusses his views on stem cell research with Deb Maupin of Blount County Right to Life at an Alcoa, Tenn., restaurant.
Sen. Bill Frist discusses his views on stem cell research with Deb Maupin of Blount County Right to Life at an Alcoa, Tenn., restaurant. (By Joy Kimbrough -- The Daily Times Via Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Sunday, August 21, 2005

If Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has presidential aspirations, he's doing a good job this month of concealing them.

Frist infuriated religious conservatives just before the August recess by calling for expanded embryonic stem cell research. Now he's spending two weeks touring his home state of Tennessee -- although he's retiring from the Senate next year.

Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said his boss returns home "as a matter of course," although he acknowledged that Frist has spent previous August breaks traveling to places such as Africa, and that two weeks is a "little bit longer" than most Tennessee trips.

"It's not always easy to get a chunk of time like this," Stevenson said.

One interpretation: Frist is seeking the comforts of a familiar environment after taking a beating from religious conservatives over his stem cell announcement. In breaking from President Bush's more restrictive approach, Frist was merely returning to his original position on the subject. But Focus on the Family founder James Dobson called Frist's reversal "the worstkind of betrayal."

A daily letter from the road, posted on Frist's Web site, is written in a wistful tone. Referring to a YMCA visit on Tuesday, Frist wrote, "It's fun to go into a community and spend time with people exercising at the local Y. We shoot hoops, take a jog around town, and talk about life in general. . . . It's an interesting retreat from answering questions on issues and current affairs."

Bob Davis, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, said he wasn't sure why Frist was making the rounds, but notes: "People sometimes get so insulated. If they're living in the capital, they're not really sure they're hearing the right things. "

But Frist's summer sojourn is a contrast with other Republicans considering a 2008 presidential run. Sen. George Allen of Virginia is appearing on talk shows to weigh in on world events. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska will depart soon for Libya and Russia. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has popped up in Iowa, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is busy promoting a book on diet and exercise and is heading soon to New Hampshire.

A survey released last week by Victory Enterprises, an Iowa-based Republican polling group, found that 8 percent of potential 2008 Iowa caucus-goers support Frist. Leading the GOP pack were former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), although the largest group of caucus attendees remain undecided. The poll also found that three out of five Iowa Republican voters side with Bush's more restrictive approach to stem cell research.

On the other hand, in a speech to Rotarians in Nashville on Friday, Frist followed Bush's lead in saying that "intelligent design," which asserts that human evolution was guided by a higher power, should be taught to school children alongside traditional scientific theories.

Tom Perdue, an Atlanta-based political consultant who ran Frist's first Senate campaign, says his former client seems to be laboring to reconcile his ambitions and his beliefs. "The question is: Would Bill be driven enough to play the Republican games to get through the nominating process?" Perdue says.

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