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Frist Frets Over 2008

In the New York Times this morning Sheryl Gay Stolberg profiles Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and the difficulty he faces looking toward a 2008 White House run:

"History does not bode well for Bill Frist, and he knows it.

"Coming into this job, everybody said if you, in your future, ever want to consider running for president of the United States, people said, 'Do not do it,' " Mr. Frist, the Senate Republican leader, said in the stilted syntax for which he is known.

He did not listen and confesses he has paid a price."

Stolberg's article also includes this harsh assessment of Frist by political analyst Charlie Cook:

"The most classic case of the Peter Principle I've ever seen in American politics," Mr. Cook said, in an uncharacteristically brutal assessment. "In a business where eloquence and rhetoric is important, he is a man of no talent whatsoever."

Frist may not be a dynamic speaker, but given that in the last 10 years both parties have produced nominees including Bob Dole, Al Gore and John Kerry, Cook's assessment seems a bit of a dramatic overstatement.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago after meeting with him in Memphis, Frist comes across as a genuinely nice, extremely competent guy - exactly the sort of person you'd trust to crack open your chest. But as he proved the following day with a lackluster speech in front of a very favorable audience, he's not the type to set the room on fire. That doesn't mean he wouldn't make a great president - he might in fact turn out to be an excellent one - but it does mean he may never get the chance.

Two things to keep in mind with Frist. The first is how significant a role organization plays in the process - especially starting with the Iowa caucuses. As we saw most recently with Kerry in 2004, a good ground game will almost always outlast media hype in the end. Frist's team feels good about their organizational skills and with no clear frontrunner dominating the field, right now Frist has as good a chance of any to deliver a strong showing in Iowa in January 2008. Who knows what might happen after that.

Also, right now, with the possible exception of immigration, the issue mix generally seems to favor McCain, though I've written extensively about the work he continues to need to do mending fences with a conservative base that remains wary of him. However, there are two issues that could become advantages for Frist in the coming years: healthcare and avian flu. Frist's background gives him exceptional credibility on both subjects; he probably knows more about them than anyone else in Congress.

The avian flu issue, in particular, has the ability to transform the race. Should the U.S. suffer an outbreak of H5N1 in the next two years (I have no idea what the odds are but it certainly seems like a growing possibility) you'd have to assume Frist's prospects would improve dramatically. Clearly, you can't run a bid for the White House that relies on such a huge, unforeseeable event. Frist will have to make his candidacy competitive based on his personal appeal and the current issues of the day. All I'm suggesting, however, is that the history of the Presidency is a confluence of both the man and the moment, and we won't necessarily have a good idea of what the "2008 moment" is going to look like for quite some time.