District Attorney General Bill Gibbons of Shelby County, a known gubernatorial hopeful and one of those attending a fundraiser on Thursday night for District 26 state Senate candidate Dolores Gresham at the Memphis home of Dr. Dwight Clark, had a ready quip: "I'm convinced that the next governor of Tennessee is here, and his name is Bill."
A self-description? He wishes. The guest of honor at the fund-raiser was former U.S. Senator Bill Frist, and in his remarks prior to introducing Gresham, Frist left little doubt that he was in earnest about running for governor. Both in those public remarks and in private conversations, Frist stuck to his mantra that he won't make any decisions until "after the first of the year." But both Gibbons and state Senator Mark Norris, another would-be governor in attendance, surely left the Clark house with alternative plans for the campaign year of 2010.
Though Frist would spend some time talking about his continuing interest in medical missions abroad and joked about taking his wife Karyn on "a vacation to Darfur," he made a point of expressing his concerns for the state of Tennessee, contrasting its political status with that of the nation at large.
Said Frist: "In the United States Senate, there will be a number of losses, net Republican losses, in the House of Representatives, also, a number of losses. If the presidency of the United States were decided today, Barack Obama would be the next president. " He mitigated this bleak outlook for the GOP only moderately, adding, "But that's not today."
In any case, these were the "national trends." Tennessee, motivated by "Tennessee values," was different. It was where someone like Bob Corker in 2006 could buck those national trends. Another case in point was Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican who displaced the legendary John Wilder as lieutenant governor in 2007.
"People ask me all the time, 'Why are you spending so much time in Tennessee?'," said Frist. That was usually, he noted, in reference to a possible governor's race. "But those of you who've known me know that I've prided myself, in every cycle, in traveling to every county in the United States Senate. Not just passing through, but getting to know people. I love Tennessee. That's where my heart is. That's why I'm here with Dolores tonight." (He would eventually hand Gresham, who seeks the seat of retiring Democrat Wilder and is opposed by Democrat Randy Camp, a check for $7500 from VolPac, Frist's political action organization.)
Frist talked about the urgent need for Republicans to pick up additional seats in the legislature and about his own desire to keep helping in that regard. "Regardless of what I do in the future, I want to be able to work with all of you to make Tennessee more dynamic." He spent some time focusing on the state's educational and health care needs, which he related to each other. "You can't starve one without starving the other." And he said he'd spent "a whole lot of time studying the issue of job creation in Tennessee."
All in all, it was neither an announcement nor a commitment. But it was the speech of a man who was clearly ready to go if he chose to run for governor of Tennessee. "I'm prepared," he responded when asked later on about the prospect of a run.
More than that, those who know him well, including some of those present Thursday night, speak of what they see as Frist's intent to lay the groundwork for a future run for the presidency. No one seems to doubt the ultimate intent of the former Senate Majority Leader (and erstwhile presidential hopeful) in that regard.