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 worst kind 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.
Scarborough Rejects Senate Bid
Florida will not be Scarborough country, at least not in the immediate future.
Conservative cable TV host and former Panhandle congressman Joe Scarborough, who had been weighing a run for the Florida Senate seat occupied by Democrat Bill Nelson, announced yesterday that he will not challenge Rep. Katherine Harris for the Republican nomination.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had tried to persuade Scarborough to challenge Harris, who is well known across Florida as the outspoken and highly visible secretary of state during the 2000 election recount. She has beaten popular opponents in the past, but Republicans worry that she's too divisive to win a statewide race. Polls have shown Harris trailing Nelson in a general election matchup.
"When party leaders approached me three weeks ago, I told them how difficult a campaign would be this year considering my personal and professional commitments," the Associated Press quoted Scarborough as saying yesterday. "Besides, I never cared for candidates who had to be coaxed into a political battle. Either you feel it in your gut, or you don't."
He didn't, so he will renew his contract for "Scarborough Country" on MSNBC, taped in his home town, Pensacola, where his youngest son is finishing high school.
Ad Volume Muted on Roberts
Both liberal and conservative groups in the John G. Roberts Jr. battle may have plenty to say about the Supreme Court nominee, but they're not putting big money behind their messages.
An analysis of political television advertising in all 210 markets in the country turned up only two brief ad campaigns by either side. "This is another sign that this nomination is not going to be much of a fight," said Ken Goldstein, director of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, which compiled the report based on data by Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
The first ad was launched the day after Bush nominated Roberts by the conservative advocacy group Progress for America. The ad, which supported Roberts, ran 186 times on cable networks, nine times on Washington stations, and once in 138 other markets.
On Aug. 10, the liberal NARAL Pro-Choice America debuted its controversial ad criticizing Roberts as an abortion rights opponent. The ad ran 200 times, mostly in Maine and Rhode Island, but was pulled after both political parties criticized it as inaccurate. Progress for America responded to the NARAL ad with its own spot, titled "How Low," which began airing Aug. 11 and ran 33 times on cable and in the Laredo, Tex., market.
"It's like an election campaign," Goldstein said. "Candidates and parties can talk all they want about a state or seat being in play, but if they are not airing advertisements, the race is not competitive."