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Frist Set to Hit the Hustings

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) launches his first political tour of the year next week, a six-city trek mixing a policy agenda with fundraising that could help boost a potential White House campaign.

The trip, in which he will criss-cross the Midwest, will be followed a week later by Frist’s first visit since the conclusion of the 2004 elections to the critical state of New Hampshire, where he will be the headline attraction at the Manchester Republican Committee’s Lincoln-Reagan Dinner on March 4.

Frist dismissed the significance of the fund-raising portion of next week’s trip, which will predominantly benefit his leadership political action committee, Volunteer PAC, as well as the New Hampshire stop. He said he raised “millions of dollars” for VolPAC last cycle, which then distributed more than $1 million to candidates across the country, a pace he expects to continue in the 2006 cycle.

“We’ll continue to do that, so there’s going to be no change” in his aggressive fundraising schedule, he said, adding that trips to New Hampshire and speculation about 2008 won’t get in the way of his legislative agenda.

“We’re just going to continue to stay focused on the work in the Senate and moving America forward.”

Frist’s tour kicks off in Memphis on Wednesday, then moves to Ohio for stops in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, before hitting Chicago and Detroit. In Memphis and Chicago, he’ll be doing fundraising events for VolPAC, while in Columbus he’ll be meeting with local officials, according to a preliminary schedule provided by advisers.

In Cleveland on Thursday, Frist will be addressing the prestigious Cleveland City Club on health care before heading to Cincinnati to speak to the local Chamber of Commerce. After the VolPAC event in Chicago on Friday, he’ll be the headline speaker at the biggest fundraising event of the year for Oakland County Republicans in Michigan, which could be a pivotal state in the 2008 presidential primary.

Much of the money that Frist raises for VolPAC in the next two years is expected to go toward the early stages of exploring a presidential bid, particularly donations to local candidates and committees in critical states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

Frist has been so successful at raising cash for VolPAC that he had banked enough money to make the maximum amount of donations to practically all critical House and Senate races by the end of the last cycle. Indeed, Frist had already taken care of 13 of the 14 Senate incumbents up for re-election in 2006 last year, giving them $10,000 each more than two years before they faced voters.

He ended 2004, after raising $4.6 million over the two-year cycle, with nearly $950,000 leftover in VolPAC.

With enough cash to cover federal races for 2006, Frist has already begun to drop money into key 2008 states. Just before the 2004 elections, 20 candidates for state and local office in Iowa and South Carolina received checks from Frist’s VolPAC, ranging from $500 to $2,000.

The more Frist raises in the next two years for VolPAC, the more he’ll be able to plow into that effort to gain chits with potential supporters in those states. Should Frist decide to run for the White House — he has already announced he’s leaving the Senate at the end of 2006 — leftover money from VolPAC cannot be transferred into a presidential committee to directly benefit his campaign.

Frist may be able to raise enough cash that he can give six-figure checks to state candidates, such as whoever the gubernatorial nominee in Iowa is in 2006. While VolPAC is limited to $5,000 donations in federal races, Iowa will require VolPAC to merely register in Des Moines and it is then allowed to make unlimited contributions to gubernatorial candidates. Similar rules apply to Virginia, which will have a tough gubernatorial race this year.

Frist’s trip to New Hampshire will be a continuation of campaigning he did in the Granite State in 2004, but those trips were often cloaked as surrogate work for President Bush’s re-election, as was his trip there in January 2004 during the Democratic presidential primary.

Without the demands of another Senate race, Frist has a leg up on the early courtship of supporters over a pair of other GOP Senators eyeing a potential bid, George Allen (Va.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.).

Both Allen and Santorum must first win re-election in 2006 before they can focus on an ’08 bid, although each could get a head start on that effort if Democrats do not field a top-tier opponent against them.

Aides to Santorum, considered by Democrats to be one of the two or three most vulnerable GOP incumbents because of his strident conservatism in a relative swing state, say he is entirely focused on winning re-election and has no national political trips on the agenda.

Allen, in a brief interview Wednesday, also said his focus was on 2006 but that he had made a few trips into territory that would gain attention outside of the Old Dominion. This weekend he’s speaking at the C-PAC convention, a gathering of the nation’s top conservative activists, and on March 11 Allen is the special guest at the 15th anniversary dinner of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in North Carolina.

Allen has already begun to expand some of his fundraising events into other states. During Super Bowl weekend in Florida earlier this month, Allen held an event for his 2006 campaign that drew the chairman of the Jacksonville GOP as well as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jon Gruden. Allen’s brother, Bruce Allen, is the general manager of the Buccaneers.

The son of a famous NFL coach, Allen also addressed a gathering of NFL coaches over Super Bowl weekend. Frist was also in Jacksonville for the Super Bowl, raising money on Super Bowl Sunday for VolPAC.

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