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On the campaign trail with Bill Frist

The Tennessee senator makes his rounds at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. By Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi.

A week ago, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist journeyed to South Carolina, which will be a key battleground in the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Lee Bandy, the dean of South Carolina's political journalists, wrote in the Columbia State that the Tennessee Republican seemed like someone who wasn't running for president: There was no advanced publicity, virtually no media in attendance, and few applause lines in the speech he gave.

But that was a different Frist from the one that appeared this weekend, in his home state, for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

The senator that showed up in Memphis easily won The Hotline’s presidential-preference straw poll -- despite some mixed reviews of his Saturday speech. Here, Frist walked and talked like a presidential candidate.

We shadowed "candidate" Frist for several hours on Friday and Saturday as he made the rounds in and about the Peabody Hotel, where the Conference was being held.

Friday, 12:00 pm ET
Frist attends a lunch in his honor at the Peabody Hotel after arriving in Memphis the day before. Dozens of attendees gather on the third floor of the hotel to feast on lunch and desserts. Supporters wear stickers that say, "Frist is my leader."

Friday, 2:15 pm ET
Frist tours the Peabody and heads to a room where delegates and conference volunteers have gathered. Dozens of volunteers in red shirts greet him to say hello and have their picture taken with him.

Frist chats up the crowd, thanks them for their hard work, smiles, and shakes their hands. One female volunteer tells him he "should" be the next president, and another corrects her, saying Frist "WILL" be the next president. He smiles and takes a picture but doesn't respond to the comments.

Frist then makes his way to the hotel’s main ballroom. He's stopped numerous times along the way to shake hands, take pictures, and deal with reporters trying to get the Senator to answer their questions.

He stops to hear Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman give his speech to the conference. Frist stays for a few minutes, and then leaves before heading down to the hotel’s exhibition hall to visit with vendors who also have gathered here for the conference.

Friday, 3:45 pm ET
Frist is back in the hotel lobby to pre-tape an interview with Hardball's Chris Matthews. Frist has his make-up done in the interview chair as the Hardball crew finishes setting up. He and Matthews chat for a few minutes until a producer tells them they're ready to roll.

Friday, 5:30 pm ET
Frist is now standing in the Peabody's exhibition hall, where he's conducting an impromptu interview with four blog reporters. One asks him about the news that he is bussing Tennessee delegates to Memphis, to boost his standing in Saturday's straw poll.

He sidesteps the question, saying instead that the Tennessee party officials who are in attendance demonstrate the energy and vitality of the party. He adds, "Any poll is a snapshot in time. And we've got a long movie."

After finishing his interview with the bloggers, the RNC’s Mehlman spots Frist and approaches him, and Mehlman makes small talk with Frist's two sons in tow -- Bryan and Harrison. Then a couple of admirers flock to Frist and ask him to sign copies of one of his books, and he obliges.

Others ask to have their picture taken with him, and he again obliges. "I am looking forward to the election tomorrow," one of these admirers tells him, referring to the straw poll.

Friday, 5:40 pm ET
Frist and his entourage -- a group of about 10 aides and bodyguards -- then walk over to the other end of the exhibition hall to conduct an interview with CNN's John Roberts, who immediately asks Frist if he's running for president in 2008.

"It is too early," Frist replies, adding that once he leaves the Senate at the end of the year, he'll think about it and then make a decision.

Roberts peppers Frist with more questions, about the November elections, President Bush's standing, and the controversial ports deal.

Then Roberts asks him if he's fixing the straw poll? "The straw poll is fun," Frist answers, and he continues that anyone who is obsessed with the poll's outcome is thinking too much.

Another admirer approaches Frist after the interview concludes. "I am going to vote for you," this person says. "I hope you run for president."

Saturday, 3:15 pm ET
Inside the ballroom, it is now time for Frist's big speech in front of his home-state audience.

"It is great to be here and back in Memphis," he begins. He then talks about his first Senate campaign, the battle over Bush's judicial nominees ("Every nominee deserves a fair up or down vote!"), his support for Bush's tax cuts ("You won't ever hear Democrats admit this, but the tax cuts are working"), and his Democratic opponents ("We are the party of ideas and principle, and they are the party of no.")

Saturday, 3:55 pm ET pm
Just outside the ballroom Frist is surrounded by a scrum of reporters and TV cameras. There are about 50 people there. Frist gives a brief statement and then comes the first question: "Senator, senator -- what do you think of John McCain's idea [to vote for Bush in the straw poll]?" After just a couple more questions, Frist ends the press conference, which has lasted fewer than five minutes. "Thank you all," he says.

Saturday, 9:03 pm ET
The straw poll results are announced, and the winner is ... Bill Frist.

Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi cover politics for NBC News.