Pivotal Days for Frist and the GOP ; the Senate Majority Leader Faces a Test of Party Loyalty and Leadership as 'Nuclear Option' on Judicial Nominees Draws Near

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Bill Frist is heading into defining days for his leadership of the US Senate - and future in politics - as he decides when, and if, to pull the trigger on the so-called "nuclear option" on judicial nominees.

Methodical by temperament, Dr. Frist (a title the M.D. prefers to senator) consults widely before making decisions. This week, he hasn't had far to look for advice. From President Bush to the Democratic opposition to special interests, he's hearing plenty.

For the man in the middle, the endgame is a critical test of leadership. With an eye on a presidential run in 2008, Frist will need the party's conservative base. But he also can't afford the stigma of presiding over a Senate that no longer works, should a partisan breakdown follow Republican efforts to push court nominees through.

"For the conservative movement from the grass-roots up, this is an absolutely essential battle to win," says Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union. "It's a test Senator Frist simply has to pass if he is coming calling at the doors of conservatives in 2008."

Passing that test won't be easy. Navigating the nuclear option - a rule change that prevents Democrats from filibustering to prevent a majority of senators from approving judicial nominees - is fraught with uncertainties. The best-case scenario for Frist is to play the hero for conservative voters, saving the nation's courts from activist judges - and Democratic "obstructionists."

Not since John F. Kennedy has a candidate taken a direct path from the Senate to the White House.

Yet Frist clearly makes the short list of potential Republican nominees. He's a Southerner, connected to a vote-rich region that's been pivotal to Republican success in recent decades. He's well- connected to GOP donors. Perhaps most important, he has a compelling personal story: a successful surgeon who still takes time out to treat patients halfway around the world or as close as the Capital steps.

His rise through Senate ranks has been near meteoric. As a freshman senator, he was the White House pick to head the Republican Senate Campaign Committee and win back the Senate in November 2002. The effort earned him the gratitude of his GOP colleagues and access to the top donors in the Party. When Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi stumbled over a racially charged remark, President Bush tapped Frist to lead the new Republican Senate majority.

A surgeon with a national reputation, Frist has scrupulously maintained his identity as the un-Senate lifer. He signs letters to colleagues, Bill Frist, MD. Capitol police describe his rushing to help victims of a 1998 shooting in the Capitol, while tourists were still crouching to avoid fire. The point man for the Senate after anthrax attacks in October 2001, he still functions as informal health adviser to colleagues while continuing higher-profile annual trips to Africa to help out in clinics. He had hoped to spend his years in Senate leadership working on better health care, AIDS relief, or brokering a compromise on stem-cell research.

But instead, he's investing more and more time and political capital on the fight over judges. Conservative activists say the most likely venue for a showdown over Senate rules will be the debate over confirmation of Priscilla Owen of Texas. …