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Frist’s 11th-Hour Giving Targeted Iowa and S.C.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) gave better than $80,000 to more than 70 state and local candidates in the waning days of this fall’s campaign, largesse that reached a number of hopefuls in Iowa and South Carolina, two early battleground states in the race for the 2008 presidential nomination.

Using his leadership political action committee, Volunteer PAC, Frist steered cash into the campaigns of almost two dozen candidates in Iowa and South Carolina running for the state legislature and other local offices from mid-October until Election Day, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Frist had already given the maximum contribution to every remotely competitive GOP Senate campaign by the time the local campaign donations were made. Eight House campaigns received $5,000 each from VolPAC in the three weeks before the elections, bringing the number to 66 House campaigns he gave to in the 2004 cycle.

After all those donations to Senate and House races for 2004, as well as previously giving the maximum $10,000 to 13 of the 14 Senators up for re-election in 2006, Frist turned his attention to local races.

Aides and strategists declined to speculate on the focus of donations to Iowa and South Carolina, although it’s no secret that presidential candidates usually use their leadership PACs to begin sprinkling campaign donations into the coffers of local officeseekers in key states to garner early support.

Frist, who is retiring at the end of 2006, has brushed aside speculation about his interest in running for the GOP nomination for the White House, often telling reporters that his only intention is to use his post-Senate days to more fully engage in practicing medicine.

In targeting donations to battleground states, Frist appears to be the first potential contender out of the gate in terms of seeking to curry favor with local power brokers, starting his effort even as the 2004 presidential campaign was in its most heated stages.

On Oct. 25, for example, 10 candidates for state Senate and state House in Iowa collected checks from VolPAC, ranging from $500 to $2,000. On Oct. 22, another 10 candidates for state and local office in South Carolina received checks from Frist.

While the caucus and primary schedule is not yet set for 2008, Iowa has by tradition been the first state to host a caucus and, in recent cycles in both Republican and Democratic nomination fights, South Carolina has been the first primary test in the South.

Frist’s efforts on the local front weren’t all an attempt at wooing support in early states. The biggest recipient of his local donations was Georgia, where more than 20 candidates for the Peach State’s Senate and House took in $1,000 checks from VolPAC.

One Frist strategist explained that the Georgia donations were part of the successful effort to help Republicans win control of the state legislature, something the GOP did for the first time since after the Civil War.

He also targeted other states where the legislative majority was in the balance, including Indiana, where 10 candidates for state representative collected $1,000 checks. Mitch Daniels, a close ally of the Bush White House and former budget director, won the governor’s mansion in Indiana.

In all, Frist operated the most prolific PAC among Congressional leaders this cycle. He raised more than $4.3 million and, including the money that went to candidates up in 2006, gave out more than $1 million to House and Senate candidates as well as national and state party committees.

As of the latest filing date, Nov. 22, Volunteer PAC still had $831,000 in its coffers.

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