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Major Super PAC donor's public role with Santorum campaign

 

When Rick Santorum took the stage to deliver his victory speech in Missouri on Tuesday, he was flanked to his right by his daughter and to his left by his wife.

Yet just over his shoulder stood the billionaire whose financial support has helped keep the campaign afloat, even in its darkest days.

Foster Friess, the primary funder for the pro-Santorum Super PAC "Red, White and Blue Fund," travels with the inner circle of the campaign; he has given suggestions to advisers about media strategy; and on Friday, he will introduce the presidential hopeful at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The relationship between Friess and the campaign he supports is one of the clearest examples of how candidates are pushing the limits of the only rule governing their relationship with Super PACs -- no coordination.

Laws prohibit candidates and the Super PAC supporting them to discuss things like how to spend money or campaign strategy. But where the line is drawn between being an outside supporter and being an actual part of the campaign has become increasingly blurry as the 2012 presidential cycle has continued.

Santorum is not the only candidate pushing the limits. Newt Gingrich met with his Super PAC funder Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas ahead of the Nevada caucus earlier this month.  Mitt Romney has appeared at fundraisers for "Restore Our Future," the Super PAC supporting his candidacy. And earlier this week, the Obama campaign announced that top advisers and even cabinet secretaries would appear at events for a pro-Obama Super PAC.

But no one else this campaign season has been as public as Santorum about his very close relationship between the campaign and the wealthy supporter helping to finance his Super PAC.

The New York Times reported that Friess, as of Dec. 31, had given the Red, White, and Blue Fund $331,000 -- more than 40% of all of its financing.

"I'm very, very fastidious about conversations I've had with him. Foster's been a friend for years and years and years and continues to be a friend. We don't talk about any activity of the Super PAC at all," Santoum said last week in Montrose, Colo. after a rally where Friess cheered him from a front row seat. "I have no idea about what he's doing or how much he's giving and I don't want to know. We talk about family. We talk about other activities. He's very careful in that regard and so am I."

Santorum staffers point to their openness about Friess' involvement as proof they are doing nothing wrong. He is a visible presence on the campaign trail and has done an increasing number of television interviews coinciding with Santorum's resurrgence.

But it is that openness that has caused some observers to scratch their heads and make the case that there really are no rules separating campaigns and Super PAC donors. In front of reporters this week, Friess questioned campaign staffers about why the candidate had not done a local interview he tried pitching them on.

"If you want us to do it, we'll do it," one aide finally told him.

The former Pennsylvania senator's spike in popularity after winning races in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado has brought with it a renewed interest in the campaign and the role of the Wyoming billionaire. It was during an appearance on CNN the morning after his three state victory where Santorum faced a question about Friess' presence on stage with him the night before.

"Foster Freiss doesn't run my Super PAC. He may be a donor to it, but the people who personally runs my Super PAC, I haven't spoken with in about five months. So, no, I mean, as far as the conversations we have, Foster has been a long personal friend for 20 years," said Santorum. 

"And we have spent a lot of time together," he added. "But we also know what the law is and Foster doesn't run the Super PAC and we don't talk about anything regarding those matters. So he's someone, again, who is a friend and will continue to be a good friend."

The response marks a shift in Santorum's defense of Friess. Previously, he described him as nothing more than a friend with whom he converses about anything but campaign matters. Yet now, the candidate says that Friess simply does not run "Red, White and Blue Fund" -- so having him so close to the campaign is no legal issue at all.

"Basically, our lawyers have told us that it's very, very simple. You just don't talk about the Super PAC," Friess said Wednesday on CNN, defending his looming presence on the trail.

And for Friess, the idea that he is pulling the strings of a presidential campaign is laughable to him.

"I have so little control over the Super PAC; all I did was write a check. In fact, Newt came up to me the other day and made some remark about one of the ads. And I said, 'You know, I don't see the ads.'" 

"So I'm not the hands on guy, I like writing the check and then I turn it over to the guys who make it happen."