FRIST: FRED'S RUN '70 PERCENT' CERTAIN

GOP campaign chief also strokes Bryant, Liddy Dole.

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U.S. Senator Bill Frist, who acknowledges that his Tennessee Republican colleague, Senator Fred Thompson goes "up and down" on his willingness to pursue a reelection race in 2002, said in an interview Thursday that there is "a 70 percent probability" that Thompson will run next year.

Frist was in Memphis as guest of honor at a fund-raiser at the downtown Plaza Club for U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant, who has senatorial ambitions that can be shelved in favor of a congressional reelection race.

In apparent response to what many took to be a senatorial-race trial ballon floated by former Governor Lamar Alexander last week, Frist said, "In the event that Senator Thompson does not run for reelection, I have no doubt that Ed Bryant has far and away more support to succeed him than anyone else."

Frist's presence, coupled with his interview statement, had to be regarded as a huge boost for Bryant, who expressed some annoyance last week with Alexander's collaboration with former Vice President Al Gore in a Nashville-based political seminar and said of an item in the Wall Street Journal on Alexander's potential Senate candidacy, "I wondered what he [Lamar] was doing giving all that free publicity to Al Gore. Now it seems obvious he had another motive."

Any statement about senatorial prospects counts especially heavy coming from Frist, who is considered as close to President George W. Bush as any member of Congress and is both the president's liaison with the Senate and chairman of the Natinal Republican Senatorial Committee.

Another prospective Senate candidate who could take heart from Frist's remarks is Elizabeth Dole, who is the subject of a boom in North Carolina now that incumbent Sen. Jesse Helms has announced retirement plans. Other Republicans have expressed interest in Helms' seat, including former U.S. Senator Lauch Faircloth, U.S. Rep. Richard Burr, ex-Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, and attorney Jim Snyder.

Frist confirmed that "serious" conversations have begun between Dole and the president's inner circle, a fact which is bound to be galling to the other hopefuls.. "These [the talks] didn't happen as early as some reports indicated, " Frist said, "but for the last day or so, they've been going on in earnest."

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