Frist aide may join Huckabee for '08 presidential election

Chip Saltsman, a longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), is talking with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) about working for him should he decide to make a 2008 White House run.

Chip Saltsman, a longtime aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), is talking with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) about working for him should he decide to make a 2008 White House run.

Saltsman, former chairman of the Tennessee GOP and a two-time fundraiser for President Bush at the pioneer level ($100,000), said he would probably make a decision this week.

Saltsman has been working with Frist’s Volunteer PAC and as a political adviser to the former senator. “These decisions aren’t easy,” he said, adding that he respects Huckabee and thinks he is a candidate who could rally the Republican base and reach out to centrists and independents.

“He’s certainly somebody I could see myself working for,” Saltsman said.

Saltsman was chairman of the Tennessee party in 2000, when former vice president and Tennessee native Al Gore lost his home state and eventually the presidency.

Afterwards, Saltsman was mentioned as a possible Bush administration appointee, but it never came to fruition.

Huckabee, considered a dark-horse candidate for the Republican nomination, has done little hiring while other candidates have been making high-profile hires from Washington and the early-voting states.

“I think, as you look at the race in a macro-sense, a lot of staff has been scooped up,” Saltsman said. “But there are still plenty that are eager to look for the right candidate.”

Saltsman said his interest in a Huckabee candidacy was due partly to a perception that the top tier of candidates lacked a true conservative. Saltsman said he was more drawn to the former governor’s ability to communicate effectively.

Though the former governor hasn’t made any official announcements yet, he is scheduled to address National Review’s Conservative Summit this Sunday and visit Iowa, site of the nation’s first presidential caucus, later this month, according to reports.

Huckabee, who hails from the same hometown of Hope as former President Bill Clinton, left office this year after a 10-year run as governor. He has been touring the country, promoting his new book, From Hope to Higher Ground: 12 STOPs to Restoring America’s Greatness.

Current state GOP Chairman Bob Davis, a longtime acquaintance of Saltsman’s, said the Republican strategist brings a well-rounded understanding of political operations and a tireless work ethic to any campaign.

“There’s no question he understands the political landscape of the country. He gets it both financially and politically,” Davis said. “I’m not sure the guy sleeps very much.”

Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said that someone like Saltsman would be a known commodity with the chairmen of other Southern states, and that he has a demonstrated ability to raise money.

“He knows the people who give money,” Oppenheimer said. “He has got the right people on his Rolodex.”

Oppenheimer said Huckabee would enter the race as a third-tier candidate looking to move to the second tier. Hiring Saltsman would not accomplish that by itself, but combined with similar moves, it could provide a sense of legitimacy for Huckabee’s candidacy.

One source in Tennessee familiar with Saltsman said the political and financial adviser also has a “network of young, energetic people” that could prove to be an asset to a fledgling campaign.