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Frist Gives Late Campaign Gift to ‘Nuclear’ Ally

Last December, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) cut a $5,000 check to a Senate campaign that had been essentially dormant for more than two years.

More notable than the timing, however, was the recipient: Tony Perkins, whose failed 2002 Senate campaign in Louisiana became merely a prelude to his current tenure as president of the Family Research Council.

Perkins finished a dismal fourth in the race, garnering just 10 percent of the vote. But by the time he took in the $5,000 from Frist’s Volunteer PAC on Dec. 15, 2004, Perkins had moved on to more important pastures.

More than two years after his failed Senate bid, Perkins had firmly established himself as one of the most important figures in the Christian conservative movement, particularly on the attempt to eliminate Democratic filibusters on judicial nominations — one of Frist’s highest priorities as Majority Leader.

Aides to Frist said the donation materialized after the two were talking in December. That’s when Frist learned that Perkins still had some debt from his 2002 campaign and offered to help out. There was no deeper motive to his donation, according to one senior political adviser.

“He asked if Frist would help him out, and [Frist] said sure,” said the adviser, who said the media were focused too much on Frist’s potential ambitions. Frist has argued for several weeks that his motive in the judicial fight is about principle, restoring what he calls the principle of up-or-down votes.

But Democrats have read more into all of Frist’s legislative and political activities lately. They accuse Frist — who is considered a likely presidential candidate in 2008 — of pushing the so-called nuclear option to end judicial filibusters in part to curry favor with conservative activists, like Perkins, who could be pivotal allies in what is expected to be a rough-and-tumble primary.

On Monday, for instance, the Democratic National Committee released a Web advertisement that was being e-mailed to its supporters mocking the attempt to eviscerate filibusters as a childish attempt to boost Frist’s chances in the 2008 primary.

“Let’s focus on the country now, not your chances in ’08,” the narrator of the ad says. “Unfortunately for us, the Republican power grab is not child’s play.”

Perkins is one of the leading spokesmen pushing for the nuclear option. He co-hosted, along with Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, the “Justice Sunday” event on April 24 in which religious leaders prayed for the end of the filibuster and urged viewers to call wavering Senators on the issue.

Frist appeared at the event via a videotaped speech outlining themes he had been reciting for many months about his opposition to the filibuster. Perkins was also a featured speaker at the gala tribute dinner Thursday in honor of embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, Perkins for Senate ended 2004 with $154,000 in debts still left over from the 2002 campaign, but then filed “debt settlement” papers in which it proposed to have much of that debt waived. If the FEC approves the request, the Perkins campaign will only have $5,000 in debt remaining.

Frist was the only Member of Congress to give money in the 2004 cycle to Perkins’ old Senate bid.

Frist gave to other failed GOP Senate campaigns to help retire debt last year, but those donations came shortly after the campaigns ended. They included former Rep. Mac Collins (Ga.) and pizza magnate Herman Cain, a one-time House candidate in Georgia, both of whom received $5,000 VolPAC checks two months after losing in the August primary.

The $5,000 given to Perkins was a small drop in the more than $1 million Frist’s PAC pumped directly into GOP candidates and committees in the 2004 cycle.

After raising $4.6 million over the two-year cycle, Frist ended 2004 with nearly $950,000 left over in VolPAC.

Having already given the maximum $10,000 to every incumbent Senator up in 2006, Frist has now begun to drop money into early 2008 primary and caucus states. Just before the 2004 elections, 20 candidates for state and local office in Iowa and South Carolina received checks from VolPAC, ranging from $500 to $2,000.

On Friday, Frist, who has already made two trips to New Hampshire this year, will give the commencement address to the University of South Carolina’s medical school.

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