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Barnstorming Tour on Frist’s Agenda

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is planning his first major political barnstorming tour of the nation during the Memorial Day recess, hitting six states and campaigning for five Senate candidates.

Highlighted by his May 22 stopover in South Dakota, where he will stump for Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D) opponent, Frist’s criss-crossing of the continent marks his first sustained attempt to rally conservative activists outside the Beltway since being elevated to Majority Leader 16 months ago.

With the Senate at near gridlock on almost every issue, Frist defended his extensive political work, saying he needed to campaign against Daschle and other Democrats to expand his majority.

“Every vote matters,” Frist told reporters at a rare pen-and-pad briefing Tuesday.

With the next recess beginning May 21, Frist plans to stump for five GOP Senate candidates either challenging Democratic incumbents or running in open seats: Jack Ryan in Illinois, former Rep. John Thune (S.D.), Rep. George Nethercutt (Wash.), former California Secretary of State Bill Jones and Rep. David Vitter (La.). He’ll also include a fundraising stop in Texas for party committees.

Frist has been on the defensive about his decision to openly campaign for Thune in Daschle’s home state, prompting leading Democrats to accuse him of crossing lines of tradition in which the two leaders work together. But Frist said Tuesday that political realities in a narrowly divided Senate force him to campaign for Thune, whom he heavily recruited to run for the Senate in 2002 when he chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Frist also helped recruit Thune, who lost by 524 votes in 2002 to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), for this race and has made it his top priority. Thune has bundled more donations from Frist’s top contributors — $156,000 in the first quarter — than any other incumbent or challenger. Frist has penned fundraising letters for Thune and will be on the trail with him in South Dakota in less than three weeks.

Noting that he “invested in him heavily” in 2002, Frist said his outward campaigning for Thune this time around was an honest approach to how strongly he wants him to win.

“It would be a little disingenuous of me,” to not stump in South Dakota, he said.

It’s unclear how the overt campaigning for Thune has impacted Frist’s relations with Daschle, whom Republicans accuse of taking extreme measures at shredding Senatorial traditions and privileges by leading filibusters of judicial nominees and other legislation. In a sign of the tightrope he is trying to walk, Frist said Tuesday that he expected to spend most of his time in South Dakota promoting Thune, avoiding questions about what he would say about Daschle while there.

“We’ll talk about John Thune. I’m there to campaign for John Thune,” he said.

Daschle cited a “responsibility to the Senate and to my Caucus” to remain a good-faith bargainer with Frist throughout the election.

“In order for us to continue to ensure that the Senate can be productive, we’re going to try to find a way to work together,” he said. “These are decisions that he has made, and I’ll leave it at that.”

But Frist is not ignoring the other races, aides said. And his national political aspirations will rise or fall depending on whether he can expand the GOP majority in the 51-49 chamber — a bigger issue than just knocking off Daschle.

As NRSC chairman, Frist constantly hop-scotched the nation, and since becoming leader he has made a few fundraising appearances on behalf of candidates, mostly in Washington, D.C., or Tennessee.

As leader of a narrowly divided chamber, Frist has not lost the feel for politics. Volunteer PAC, his leadership political action committee, is now the biggest fundraiser of all Congressional PACs, having taken in $2.8 million in the first 15 months of the cycle. Volunteer PAC has given more to candidates and party committees, $333,000, than any other Senate leadership PAC.

Some Democrats said they don’t expect Frist to be received very well in a few of the places he’ll be campaigning on this political trip, because his record is out of line with voters in those states.

“It helps me when he comes” to California, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is squaring off against Jones.

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