NEW YORK – They're big fish in the little pond of the U.S. Capitol. But House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) are just bit players on the public stage of this week's Republican National Convention (search).
Instead, the two most powerful members of Congress have spent much of their time behind the scenes, wooing donors who can help the party keep House and Senate control and helping GOP candidates. And in Frist's case, making appearances and contacts that could help should he run for president in 2008.
"I try to go out and see some people who have helped us over the past. It's a good time to schmooze," Hastert, R-Ill., said before entering a reception thrown for him by Illinois-based Motorola Inc.
After running four miles in Central Park Wednesday morning, Frist, R-Tenn., gave an animated breakfast pep talk to Florida delegates at their hotel.
"There aren't that many delegations we have the opportunity to speak to that can literally change the direction" of the country, Frist told the Floridians.
He said they could do so by electing GOP Senate candidate Mel Martinez, the former housing secretary, and padding the GOP's slim majority in that chamber. He then rushed to a meeting with the California, Ohio and Tennessee delegations at a different hotel.
Hastert aides say he has visited only his home state's delegation.
Despite their leadership posts, Hastert and Frist lack sizable national followings or electrifying speaking styles. With the convention's focus on re-electing President Bush, both men have briefly addressed the convention — Hastert twice — but neither in a featured spot. Both also have formal roles — Hastert as permanent chairman, Frist heading the platform committee.
Each has had receptions thrown in their honor by corporations and trade groups. Campaign finance laws allow unlimited spending on such events, where lobbyists and others mingle with members of Congress and each other.
Tuesday's Motorola-sponsored event was at the New York City Fire Museum and included salmon appetizers and red, white and blue mousse.
"It increases our political capital to get face time" with Hastert, said Chris Hudgins, lobbyist with the National Prostate Cancer Coalition.
Hastert and Frist say such gatherings are proper and do not influence their decisions. Critics say the events unfairly give contributors and supporters access to lawmakers — and vice versa.