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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Republican candidate Rick Santorum showed strong fundraising numbers last month after a series of primary wins. But earlier in the contest, the loudest voice promoting Mr. Santorum wasn't the candidate; it was Foster Friess, a multi-millionaire who is the main funder of a pro-Santorum superPAC. NPR's Peter Overby has this profile, part of our series on million dollar donors to the superPACs.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: When Rick Santorum spoke at the big Conservative Political Action Conference this winter, it was Foster Friess who introduced him. Friess gave a short speech. He aimed one of the jokes at Santorum's main rival.

FOSTER FRIESS: A conservative, a liberal and a moderate walked into the bar. The bartender says hi, Mitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OVERBY: And Friess brought out his candidate.

FRIESS: I want you to give a welcome to the next president of the United States, Rick Santorum.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OVERBY: Santorum came on stage and acknowledged Friess.

RICK SANTORUM: And another thing, I will not be telling any jokes. I think Foster cornered the market on that.

OVERBY: Neither Friess nor Santorum alluded to the multi-millionaire's role in the Santorum presidential bid. Friess is the main benefactor of the superPAC supporting Santorum, the Red White and Blue Fund. Friess gave early and he gave big - $1.6 million, so the superPAC could put Santorum's message on TV when the campaign itself was almost broke. Nor did Friess or Santorum mention at superPAC that Friess regularly travels and talks with the candidate. The law says the superPAC has to be independent, walled-off from the campaign when it comes to messaging. Friess talked about it to Reuters TV in February.

FRIESS: When I give money to Red White and Blue Fund I have to be very, very careful, not coordinating with the campaign, I'd be careful what I say. I think the best system would be if we all had unlimited free speech and spending our money the way we want, but give directly to candidates.

OVERBY: Craig Holman is with the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen. He says Friess demonstrates just how weak the campaign finance laws have become.

CRAIG HOLMAN: When you see Foster Friess showing up at Rick Santorum rallies and at the same time providing unlimited funding and presumably direction to the Santorum superPAC, you know, it literally means that the contribution limits have been gutted.

OVERBY: Friess declined to be interviewed for this piece. One reason: NPR wouldn't air the interview unedited. Even before the superPAC, Friess had a long history of giving to Republicans. His first recorded contribution to Santorum was in 1993. He made his fortune as a fast-moving investor in the 1980s and '90s. He became a Christian in 1978. He told Wyoming Public Broadcasting two years ago that that set the stage for his philanthropy.

FRIESS: I invited the Lord to become chairman of the board of my life, which has been huge part of my life. And from that point forward, I realized that my health, my family, all my treasures, including my entire bank account, wasn't mine, it was his.

OVERBY: So, Friess has sent millions to Haiti, New Orleans and Asia for disaster relief. He gives to Christian charities through the National Christian Foundation. Islamic groups that advocate non-violence get money from him, and so do local charities around Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he has a home. Friess also makes frequent calls for more civility in politics and more unity. This is from the Reuters TV interview in February.

FRIESS: I think the wealthy people, the people on the lower income rungs are coming together in unity, which is exciting because we're sick and tired of the divisiveness that's been generated in our country.

OVERBY: Of course, supporters of Mitt Romney criticize the Santorum superPAC for its attack ads against Romney, ads that they believe have prolonged the Republican primary fight and have made it more divisive. Overall, money from Foster Friess accounts for about one-quarter of the superPAC's ads. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: To learn more about the Million Dollar Donor series, you can go to NPR.org.

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