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Lamar Vs. Bryant

Fred Thompson's abdication from his Senate seat set in motion a whirlwind that overtook both major parties.

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From time immemorial, Tennessee has wielded unusual political clout in the nation at large. Besides the three presidents produced by the state in the 19th century -- Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Andrew Johnson -- there were abundant near-misses in the 20th.

Senator Kenneth McKellar (a Memphian) was president pro tem of the Senate and a close confidante of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The fellow Democrat who unseated the elderly McKellar in 1952, a congressman named Albert Gore, became a serious presidential aspirant, as did two of his contemporaries, Senator Estes Kefauver, who led the 1952 Democratic presidential convention for two ballots, and Governor Frank Clement, who gave a famous keynote address at the 1956 Democratic convention. ("How long, America ... ," orated Clement, lamenting Eisenhower-era Republicanism in the manner of Cicero inveighing against the conspirator Catiline.)

The GOP had its main men too: Senator Bill Brock, who would hold several cabinet posts and lead the Republican Party nationwide; Howard Baker, the Watergate Committee senator who asked of Richard Nixon, "What did the president know, and when did he know it," and tried for the Oval Office himself; and Tennessee's two senators of the moment, Baker protégé Fred Thompson, onetime Watergate minority counsel and sometime movie star, and Bill Frist, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Both Frist, who is reported to be in line to succeed Dick Cheney if the current vice president's health should betray him, and Thompson, who led a much-heralded investigation of campaign-finance abuse, have been considered presidential prospects during their terms in Washington. Frist's ambitions are considered very much alive; Thompson, increasingly alienated from politics, shelved his, and this year, after the untimely death of his daughter, took the further step of announcing he would not run for reelection in 2002.

It was that act of renunciation which converted a somewhat boring election season overnight into one which has had several distinct waves of national media frenzy.

Item: Karl Rove, the GOP heavyweight who managed George W. Bush's 2000 campaign for the presidency, reportedly made numerous calls around Tennessee of late admonishing prominent state Republicans to reject the Senate candidacy of 7th District congressman Ed Bryant and embrace that of former Governor Lamar Alexander, whose almost instantaneously produced campaign organization and TV commercials gave credibility to the rumor that Thompson -- and the White House -- had telegraphed events to him well in advance.

Item: The latest coming of 61-year-old Alexander was a media event in itself. He was so smooth in the new TV ads (stressing the "dangerous times," his loyalty to President Bush, and a desire to "succeed," not "replace," Thompson) that the old cat seemed almost to purr. Two failed presidential campaigns may have dimmed his luster, but this was still the man -- blond, earnest, and then youthful -- who had been sworn in early in late 1978 so as to expunge the dark, scowling Ray Blanton before that governor (eventually imprisoned for but one instance of his documented multiple corruptions) could do any more damage to the state. To compound the Mr. Clean aspects of the drama, the Democratic candidate defeated by Alexander in that election year, Knoxville banker Jake Butcher, would himself go to prison for fraud.

Item: The most prominent Democrat-in-waiting, 31-year-old Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis' 9th Congressional District, had so intoxicated media and Democratic circles at both statewide and national levels that he had been lionized in virtually every national publication -- as one of People magazine's "50 most beautiful" people; as a rising "black Centrist" in The New York Times Magazine; and, for a whole memorable page in Newsweek just two months earlier, as the very essence of the nation's emerging black leadership. Widely courted by his party to run against Frist in 2000, he had thought better of it, but now, in the very year that would see an African-American sweep at the Oscars, he let it be known he was ready for a starring role.

Item: Even as Ford, for reasons that continue to baffle many Democrats, was induced to drop his senatorial ambitions, out of nowhere would come -- Tipper Gore!, wife of former Vice President Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic standard-bearer and bearer of a sunny persona well-liked even by those who found her husband's demeanor stiff and off-putting. The idea of a Gore-Alexander race delighted a national media that had been deprived of the expected Rudy Giuliani-Hillary Clinton showdown in New York's 2000 Senate race.

Item: Though operating with less of a spotlight on them to begin with, two congressmen -- Democrat Bob Clement, who represented Nashville, and Republican Ed Bryant, whose 7th District stretched from the environs of Memphis to those of Nashville -- evinced a determination that would ultimately, and to the surprise of many onlookers, make them figures to reckon with.

We all know what happened: Ford did not run, Tipper would come and go, Clement and Bryant would not go away, and Alexander became the pollsters' favorite even as a grassroots rebellion set in against him. How did all of this happen? Here are some of the essentials, as gleaned from a variety of sources.

First, most observers now accept the notion that Alexander, who as a protégé of former Senator Howard Baker comes from the same political stable as Thompson, did indeed get an advance tip-off from the state's senior senator that he planned to retire. By the time Thompson's official announcement came, Ted Welch of Nashville, Alexander's trusty fund-raising aide, was already working the phones, and Mike Murphy -- the former governor's chief political strategist during the 1996 presidential run that took Alexander within a few votes, in New Hampshire, of inevitability -- was already on board, helping shape the TV spots.

The earliest intimations of Thompson's pending retirement came in the first week of March from the White House itself, the same White House which, in tandem with Senator Frist at the NRSC, had quietly begun recruiting Alexander during the summer of 2001 when Thompson, reportedly bored with politics and perhaps yearning for a rumored future as head lobbyist for the movie industry, first indicated he might want out.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bryant, a team player who had been one of the House impeachment managers during the final phases of Bill Clinton's Whitewater/Monica ordeal, was acting in accordance with long-established Republican custom, which generally yields the privilege of candidacy to the most senior party official available. That's how Bob Dole got first dibs on the presidency in 1996, and that's how Don Sundquist, a six-term congressional backbencher, got to be his party's candidate for Tennessee governor in 1994.

Bryant had come very near to outsmarting himself in early 2001. As late as the inaugural week of George W. Bush, he and his equally ambitious 4th District Republican colleague, Van Hilleary, had each been considered a possible candidate for either the governorship or the Senate. Thinking that Thompson, who was then under pressure to run for governor in 2002 (again, according to the GOP's seniority principle), would be looking toward Nashville, Bryant moved his chess piece. He announced that he would abjure all thoughts of the governorship and run only for the Senate if Thompson's seat became available.

Had Thompson moved in the way expected, Bryant would have maneuvered Hilleary into the position of odd man out. But Thompson instead eschewed interest in a gubernatorial race, and Bryant had sacrificed a possibility without result. Hilleary happily accepted the role of Designated Gubernatorial Candidate, while Bryant seemed out of luck.

But then, in the summer of 2001, came the senior senator's Hamlet-like musings of possible retirement from the Senate. Bryant, gifted with new hope, was attending a party for GOP nonagenarian John T. Williams at Shelby County mayor Jim Rout's house in late August when the talk turned to news reports that Alexander was looking at running for the Senate. Angrily and spontaneously, Bryant remarked on a joint seminar held in Nashville the week before by Alexander and Al Gore. Now, said Bryant in words he would later repent of, he understood: the former governor was looking for publicity at any cost.

Frist's role in the scheme of things was decidedly ambiguous. He managed to stroke Bryant, appearing at a Memphis fund-raiser for the congressman a week or so later, but he was simultaneously spending time recruiting and courting Alexander, it later developed.

Events would make the situation moot. September 11th occurred, and, in the aftermath of the tragedy, Thompson said he would return to the Senate. Bryant resigned himself to another House term. End of story. Until the unexpected death of Thompson's beloved 38-year-old daughter in January of this year set the stricken senator on the path of retirement again and led to his announcement in early March.

Reenter Alexander, as planned. But, as it turned out, Bryant would beat the senior Republican to the punch by two days, making a statement of candidacy in his home town of Henderson the very weekend after Thompson's pullout announcement. The congressman also made known his suspicions that Alexander had been put on early notice and that efforts were being made by "big-money people" to dry up his own fund-raising capability.

(The term of opprobrium would become "Washington insiders" as Alexander's backers -- who, it would seem, might indeed include the White House and the NRSC -- intensified pressure on Bryant to exit in Alexander's favor.)

Whatever the case, Bryant's case became the occasion of isolated grassroots rebellions all over Tennessee, where partisans of his post-Gingrich style of conservative populism rose up in his defense. A Nashville TV station, News Channel 5, hearing from the same constituency that kept the state's right-wing talk-show hosts in business, actually released the results of a call-in poll showing Bryant to be leading Alexander by a margin of 50-odd points to a number in the single digits!

Alexander himself, product of an earlier Republican era (styled "moderate" in contemporary lingo), was making statesmanlike forays into the state's major cities (including one in Memphis, where he was endorsed by Rout and other local GOP eminences), and the established Nashville polling firm of Ayes, McHenry, and Associates released its own, more traditional poll, showing, among other results, 60 percent for Alexander in a trial heat among Republican voters versus 20 percent for Bryant.

Between these extremes of prejudgment, the stakes were being set for a long-overdue showdown between rival Republican forces.

As Republicans were preparing for what increasingly took on the appearance of a duel, Democrats were reacting in a different way. In the Lebanon law office of state Democratic Party chairman Bill Farmer, the telephone had begun ringing incessantly at the news of Thompson's departure. And Farmer placed as many calls as he received.

Early on, the chairman resolved to get Democratic hopefuls talking together in the hopes of producing a consensus candidate. In effect, that meant talking to the state's four Democratic congressmen, the obvious pool from which a Senate candidate might come. Of the four, the 8th District's John Tanner let it be known fairly quickly that he wasn't interested, the 6th District's Bart Gordon said he would be thinking seriously about it, while the other two -- the 9th District's Ford and the 5th District's Clement -- made it clear they were both keen to run.

This was to be expected in the much touted Ford's case. But the intensity of Clement's interest came as something of a surprise. It had been scarcely a year since Clement -- son of the late former Governor Frank Clement, whose dazzling old-fashioned oratory had been a decided contrast to the younger Clement's homespun way of talking -- had opted out of a governor's race, yielding the favorite's role to Nashville's assertive ex-mayor, Phil Bredesen, who had carried the party standard in 1994.

It was the second or third time in recent years that Clement had backed away from a statewide race, and many had expected that the congressman would do so again. His expression of interest in the Senate was immediate, however, leading some to conclude that his way of being his father's son would be to realize the legendary Frank's twice-frustrated ambition of becoming a United States senator.

Rep. Gordon, who was in line to become chairman of the House Technology Committee if Democrats should win control of the House of Representatives, counted himself out. That left Ford and Clement -- both, it seemed obvious to Farmer, equally ready and rarin' to go.

Farmer, who was beginning to sense an opportunity to exploit division in the rival Republicans' ranks, feared that the two might be on what he would call "a collision course." So he began to broker meetings between supporters of the congressmen and encouraged them to meet directly.

Eventually, all four House Democrats would meet in Washington amid reports that the Democrats' Senate Campaign Committee had commissioned an instant poll, matching all the party hopefuls against their possible GOP opposite numbers. Those numbers have not yet been released, but word filtered out that Clement may have showed marginally better statewide against Bryant and Alexander than did Ford.

The Memphis congressman had begun a tour of East Tennessee, where he was least well-known, almost as soon as Thompson had made his announcement. Press reports of the results, as well as the congressman's own telling, make it obvious that he was getting good press and having a positive impact even among groups as unsympathetic to Democrats, normally, as the National Rifle Association.

But Ford was working against the clock. In a climactic meeting of the four Democratic congressmen in Washington, it was decided -- by means and through arguments which in large measure remain unknown -- that Clement would be the consensus candidate if he wanted to be.

Though there are many in Memphis who suspected otherwise, Farmer says he scrupulously stayed away from influencing the outcome, advising neither Ford nor Clement to run or not to run. "I told them both, 'It takes only four or five people to get you into a race that a margin of four or five thousand can knock you out of. It has to be a personal decision."

Another factor which may have influenced proceedings to some degree was the emergence as a prospective 9th District congressional candidate of state Senator John Ford -- a respected legislator but one whose many brushes with the law and with marital discord had made him, to say the least, a controversial figure. Whatever the Ford clan's actual thinking about a congressional succession might be -- and this matter remains obscure -- the congressman felt obliged to issue a quick and decisive statement distancing himself from his uncle's ambition.

Eventually, Ford (whom Farmer characterized as "having his foot on the starting block") said that he would defer to Clement if the latter decided to run and began another tour of East Tennessee, where he got further warm receptions. Clement's resolve to run seemed to harden, meanwhile, and state Democrats began to see handwriting on the wall. Clement announced a press conference for Monday, March 18th, and that seemed that.

Then came the Tipper bombshell. Whether prompted by Democrats unsatisfied with the mild-mannered, somewhat uncharismatic Clement or by some inner compulsion of her own, the former vice president's wife let it be known that she might enter the race for the Senate.

Bill Farmer, like many others in Tennessee and elsewhere, thought the earliest reports might have been somebody's far-fetched idea of a joke. But eventually he would get a phone call from the prospective candidate herself, telling him that she was indeed seriously considering a race. The news had "slipped out" prematurely, she said apologetically (and ironically, considering that any later publicity of her intentions would have seen Clement already and irrevocably committed).

Farmer beseeched Gore to please get in touch with Bob Clement, who he knew was already putting together not only his announcement but his campaign team.

If the national media were already intent upon doings in Tennessee, whose open seat might indeed be the pivotal one in the major parties' contest for control of the Senate, they went virtually berserk at the red meat they scented in an Alexander-Gore showdown. Over the weekend of March 15th-18th, the nation's political columnists and talk-show pundits could deal with little else.

While all this was going on, Clement put out definite word: No matter what Tipper does, I'm still announcing. I'm in to stay. Eventually, he and Gore, who interrupted a stay in California to return to Tennessee, met face-to-face, and he told her the same thing. It was an eyeball-to-eyeball situation, the second in a week for the Nashville congressman with the famously modest mien, and he didn't blink.

The bottom line: There came a Sunday-night announcement from Gore that "now [was] not the time" for her to pursue any political ambitions. Her decision was influenced mightily not only by Clement's unyielding resolve but by the knowledge that some Gore supporters felt themselves committed to the Nashville congressman.

Tipper came to Nashville and joined other state party dignitaries at Nashville's Union Station Hotel on Monday, March 18th. One conspicuous absentee: U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr., who, however, sent word of his enthusiastic support of his congressional colleague. Meanwhile, Ford looked down the road to 2006, when, if Bill Frist followed through on a two-term-and-two-term-only pledge, another U.S. Senate seat would be up for grabs.

Which takes us to the present: "I don't usually grade Republicans, but it looks like we've got a tag-team situation in the other party," opined Bill Farmer this week.

"On one side you've got Lamar and Henry and Sundquist, and on the other you've got Hilleary and Bryant," said Farmer, meaning that former supporters of Alexander's senatorial candidacy were backing former state Representative Jim Henry with the advice and consent of Governor Don Sundquist, while there was also a de facto alliance involving 4th District U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary with congressional colleague Bryant.

If these relationships exist, they would seem to exist so far at the informal level. Sundquist has indeed endorsed Alexander and has indicated he may also bestow his formal blessings on Henry, who was House Republican leader under Alexander and whose financial donors include prominent backers of the former governor.

Hilleary observed as much weekend before last in Memphis, where he introduced Bryant to a GOP Lincoln Day audience as one who would "make a great U.S. senator" and said, "We've got a long way to go" when asked if he would return the favor of Bryant's prior endorsement of his candidacy.

Reading further into the opposition party's tea leaves, Farmer said he expected President Bush to emerge in Tennessee during the primary campaign to make his influence felt.

Candidate Bryant and his backers have reacted defiantly to such suggestions thus far -- with Bryant insisting in a press release last Friday and in a weekend speech in Lebanon that he would resist pressure from "Washington insiders" and would stay in the race under any and all circumstances.

Justin Hunter, Bryant's campaign manager, insisted Monday that the 7th District congressman would stay in the Senate race even if Bush came to Tennessee and personally endorsed Alexander here.

"We all support the president, but Republican voters in other races elsewhere in the nation have indicated they want to make their own judgments about candidates in their areas, and Tennesseans feel strongly the same way," Hunter said.

It all caused Bob Clement, a visitor to Memphis over the weekend for the Gridiron Show, to muse, "We seem to have changed places with the Republicans, haven't we?"

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