In ’08 Race, Can Frist Avoid Becoming the GOP’s John Kerry?

Posted April 29, 2005 at 2:12pm

What separates Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) from the 99 other Senators who want to be president is that some observers figure him to be one of the early favorites for 2008.

But Frist’s assets seem troublingly similar to the ones allegedly possessed by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as he began his bid for the White House. Frist’s challenge is to re-make himself and add a list of Capitol Hill victories to his résumé between now and early 2007 if he is to have any chance of winning the GOP nomination, let alone the White House.[IMGCAP(1)]

Frist is widely viewed as a favorite of many in the GOP establishment, including some of the party’s top money people. As the party’s leader in the Senate he has national contacts, as well as the stature and name identification few others in his party enjoy.

The story of Frist, a heart surgeon by training who has had a Zelig-like ability to appear at medical emergencies around the Capitol, has been repeated so often that it has become the stuff of legend — an undeniable asset for a politician who wants to appeal to voters who don’t like or trust politicians. And as a doctor, the Tennessee Republican can talk about the critical health care issue with first-hand knowledge.

Like Kerry, Frist has an impressive bio. A graduate of Princeton with an M.D. from Harvard, he founded and ran Vanderbilt’s transplant center. Eight years after entering the world of politics, he was selected to lead Senate Republicans.

But it isn’t easy being the Majority Leader these days. Not only is he caught in a political tangle on judicial filibusters that could dramatically affect his presidential ambitions, but President Bush’s Social Security agenda is stalled, and D.C. insiders whisper (fairly or unfairly) that Frist is in over his head as leader.

Though not temperamentally or historically identified as a “movement conservative,” Frist campaigned for election in 1994 as a conservative and earned the trust of veteran activists on the right in Washington, D.C. That support is crucial, obviously, if and when he makes his run for the White House, since cultural issues play such an important role in the GOP nominating process.

Capitol Hill observers agree that Frist is heading toward a confrontation with Senate Democrats on the confirmation of federal judges, but they disagree on the resulting fallout.

Some argue that he must succeed in getting all of Bush’s nominees confirmed, while others insist that to improve his credentials with conservatives he must carry the fight to the end and shun compromise even if it means losing.

Clearly, Frist needs to ingratiate himself with the right. But his long-term White House prospects won’t be helped if he comes to be defined primarily by the Terri Schiavo case or the fight over the filibustering of judges. He certainly can’t appear to “sell out” to Democrats, but he could show “leadership” by working on a compromise and avoiding a nuclear explosion.

One of Frist’s biggest problems in winning the nomination is his style.

Heart surgeons probably need to appear unemotional and unflappable as they prepare to cut open a person’s chest, but national candidates need to show some pizzazz, or at least a pleasing style that connects with average voters. Frist suffers from a “pizzazz deficit.”

Republican observers call him “colorless” and the “inertia candidate.” They agree that he is bright and analytical, but they continue to question whether he has the kind of political instincts he will need in a race for the White House. Again, sounds a lot like Kerry, doesn’t it?

“He’s the default candidate,” said one insider who thinks Frist’s presidential prospects may well be at their zenith the day before he begins his campaign for president.

Frist is a GOP frontrunner primarily because of his leadership position, his contacts and his biography. He is a “safe” pick for GOP insiders who want to back a candidate with smarts and discipline. But in terms of candidate skills, the heart surgeon needs work. He’s not a polished or engaging orator by any means.

Supporters of Frist will note that he has won two races for the Senate, including a convincing victory over Sen. Jim Sasser (D) in 1994. He served a successful cycle as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, actively worked to convince South Dakota voters to dump then-Sen. Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in the 2004 elections, and, as his party’s leader in the Senate, played a role in enacting bankruptcy and class action reform.

His allies also insist that he can be personally more appealing than he has appeared as Majority Leader.

“I’ve seen him be exceptional. The question is whether he can make that the norm. He has a magnificent bedside manner when it comes out. Being leader doesn’t amplify that quality, however,” one Frist supporter told me.

It won’t be enough for Frist to run a well-funded, technically sound presidential campaign. He will also need to connect with voters on a personal basis, and he will be measured, to a considerable extent, by his term as Majority Leader.

For all his smarts and intensity, the surgeon-turned-pol has plenty of work to do before he deserves to be regarded as a serious threat to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.

“The only way he can win is if nobody else catches fire,” one strategist told me. Somehow, Frist needs to show Republican opinion makers that he has some of that fire Republicans will be looking for.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.