WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist renounced a bid for the White House in 2008 on Wednesday, an early dropout from the most wide-open presidential race in decades.
“In the Bible, God tells us for everything there is a season, and for me, for now, this season of being an elected official has come to a close,” said the Tennessee Republican, a surgeon before he entered politics in 1994.
While the first national convention delegates won’t be chosen for more than a year, jockeying among potential presidential contenders is well under way.
Frist made his announcement as several potential GOP hopefuls were descending on Miami for the annual meeting of the Republican Governors’ Association. Among them were Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, outgoing head of the group, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., planned private meetings with governors Thursday followed by a reception.
The roster of potential candidates in both parties is long in the first White House campaign since 1928 in which neither an incumbent president nor vice president is in the early mix of candidates.
Frist’s brief statement did not specify a reason for dropping out of a race he had eyed for more than a year, and had included trips to the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
In a statement, he said he “will take a sabbatical from public life” and “return to my professional roots as a healer and to refocus my creative energies on innovative solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges Americans face.”
His decision capped a 12-year career in politics marked by a speedy rise but an uncertain tenure at the peak of Senate power.
He won his Senate seat in 1994 and pledged to serve no longer than two six-year terms.
His launching pad to national power was the chairmanship of the Senate GOP campaign committee, which gained seats under his direction in 2002. That, in turn, positioned him to become majority leader when Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott made racially insensitive comments after the election and was forced to step aside.
As majority leader, Frist worked to implement President Bush’s agenda, from passage of tax cuts to confirmation of conservative judges. He played a significant role in legislation that overhauled Medicare and created a prescription drug benefit.
His politics and his medical training collided in 2005 in the case of Terri Schiavo, and he was widely criticized for pandering to religious conservatives by injecting himself into the debate over the brain-damaged woman. Doctors in the case said she was in a persistent vegetative state. Frist, in his office in the Capitol, viewed a videotape of her, then publicly questioned the diagnosis.
An autopsy later confirmed their judgment, not his.
Frist also remains under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission on insider trading charges in connection with the sale of shares in HCA Inc. Frist’s father and brother founded the firm and it formed the foundation of the senator’s considerable personal wealth. He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, although his hopes for a speedy end to the investigation have not materialized.
Also embarrassing was a disclosure by The Associated Press in August that Frist had not met the continuing medical education requirement needed to remain licensed, although he submitted paperwork to Tennessee officials indicating that he had.