As Lott Steps Down, Will Frist Step Up?

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Frist In Line: With Lott stepping down, the Tennessee Senator wants to fill the void

In the wake of Trent Lott's bombshell announcement that he will step down as the Senate's Republican leader, Bill Frist is quickly emerging as the party's choice to replace him. The Tennessee Senator was very recently considered a dark horse, his bid overshadowed by more established contenders like Mitch McConnell and Don Nickles. Late Thursday he officially declared his intention to stand for majority leader, and within hours, numerous Republican leaders, including McConnell, Virginia's John Warner and Oklahoma's James Inhofe, threw their support behind the second-term Senator. The 51 GOP senators will meet January 6th to elect a new leader by secret ballot.

This year has increased visibility for Frist, 50, who gained recognition — and goodwill — among key Republicans during his extremely successful stint as the head of the GOP Senatorial Campaign Committee. A Harvard-trained heart surgeon Frist votes a very conservative line on most issues, but is known to depart from his party's position on issues with a scientific bent, including stem cell research and extending care for AIDS patients. He is the only physician currently serving in the Senate, and his colleagues often depend on his opinion when considering votes on medical issues.

Well liked and respected within the GOP and beyond, Frist is rumored to be mulling a 2008 presidential run. In the meantime, he maintains a very close relationship with the current White House, and particularly with presidential advisor Karl Rove. The Associated Press reports there are some Republicans who fear Frist may be perceived as simply a "yes man" for the President's agenda, and others who worry his proximity to Bush could make him especially vulnerable to partisan attacks.

While it certainly has the benefit of momentum, Frist's candidacy may not go unchallenged; Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is believed to be considering a run for Lott's spot as well. Santorum, one of the Senate's most consistently conservative voices, does not share Lott's or Frist's predilection for compromise. A Senate under his leadership would likely be a more adversarial — and far more friendly to the conservative wing of the GOP — than what would emerge under Frist.