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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dr. Perfect Taking the Lead

We knew they were good. We didn't know they were this good.

With a spectacular triple bank shot, Karl Rove and President George W. Bush, the Butcher Cassidy and Sundance Kid of politics, blew away Trent Lott, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.

Only a week ago, it looked as though Lott could survive, and if he didn't, Don Nickles or Mitch McConnell might step up. But then Bush authorized the first executive action of his presidency, a stealth assassination of Lott.

How could the president not finish him off, when the hapless Mississippi senator not only supported Strom Thurmond over Thomas Dewey in '48, but Jack Kemp over George Bush Sr. in '88?

With a cat-burglar finesse that wowed Washington, Bush and Rove spirited away the majority leader job and waltzed a Tennessee heart surgeon into it, anointing the urbane Bill Frist the fresh new conservative face of the Republican Party.

"They've created a real live player here," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist. "He comes off as a friendly doctor, which is what he is."

The Boy King and the Boy Genius plucked Frist from the chorus and made him the headliner, despite misgivings, as Rove muttered to pals, that the doctor might be too ambitious, too big for his scrubs.

This White House does not like to have any other stars besides Bush, or independent spirits, or anyone who ever supported a rival. That is why they never recruited Rudy Giuliani to run homeland security, or Warren Rudman for the Sept. 11 commission, or John McCain for the Cabinet. They prefer bland team players they can control.

"They don't want to give anybody else any oxygen," a former Bush administration official said.

So why did they give the 50-year-old surgeon, who didn't even vote until he was 36, room to operate? His elevation makes him a hot prospect for 2008. Not only does Frist occlude Condoleezza Rice's vice presidential hopes, should Dick Cheney decide to leave. He eclipses Jeb, the brother who snatched the presidency for W. and is waiting for his own shot, the brother who spoke up to help W. boot Lott.

"43 has done everything in his presidency not to be 41 and he doesn't want a 44," said a family friend. "He doesn't want to be part of a Bush sandwich. In his own family, he's still ranked as the fourth-best politician, after his mother, father and Jeb."

James Carville notes the rule of White Houses: "Help thyself first."

Frist was the answer to the White House's immediate problems, and certainly he's been a team player, backing up Bush by retreating on AIDS funding he cares about and crimping stem cell research he knows would revolutionize medicine.

In the long run, maybe W. and Karl reckon that the top Senate job isn't a flattering showcase for a contender trying to impress the conservative base. The suave surgeon will turn sausage maker, playing footsie with moderates, making deals for votes.

The doctor has faced questions of conflict over his family health care empire and health industry contributors, and has been scolded for racial insensitivity. Democrats, dying to embarrass the Republicans again, are poring over his records.

Yet you can't underestimate a man who persuades people that cutting open their chests is a good idea.

As Senate campaign chairman in the midterms, Frist resuscitated his party and won the Senate back. As the first doctor-senator elected since 1928, he routinely resuscitates Capitol Hill tourists who go into cardiac arrest or pass out; he revived Thurmond the last time he collapsed on the Senate floor.

He works round the clock, often gets by on four hours of sleep, has three sons, yet still finds time to volunteer, operating on AIDS patients in Africa and checking on monkeys' hearts at the National Zoo. He was a calming presence during the anthrax attacks on the Hill and the bioterror debates.

He's a Princeton grad and Harvard med school grad who flies planes and owns a house in Nantucket. He looks like a TV anchor, and has a far smoother bedside manner than Tom DeLay and Dick Armey.

Senator Clinton was hoping that Rove and Lott would overreach with a majority Senate, and frighten suburbanites.

But now in 2008, St. Hillary might face Dr. Perfect -- a man who not only talks about saving the health care system but saves lives on his way to the Senate floor.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.