Take the race for Shelby County Sheriff, for example. In both major parties, a trio of ranking competitors will vie for the nomination. Among Democrats, they are Randy Wade, E.C. Jones, and Henry Hooper. In the GOP, the Big Three are Don Wright, Bobby Simmons, and Mark Luttrell.
Wade and Simmons are ranking departmental officers who argue plausibly that they have not been in the loop of the department's command structure during its turbulent recent history. Wright, who is chief deputy, must, for better and for worse, own up to having been there. Jones, a city councilman; Hooper, a former Secret Service agent; and Luttrell, director of the county's Corrections Division, can make the case that they are outsiders.
Three is the dividing number, too, in the contest for the District 5 seat on the Shelby County Commission -- one which may determine the shape of things to come, since whichever party wins it will have the capability of dominating party-lines by the narrow margin of seven to six.
Among Democrats, veteran political figure Joe Cooper has held the fort by himself for a longish time, but at press time there were reports that he might have company before the week was out -- possibly from lawyer Guthrie Castle, who made two unsuccessful runs for Congress but has kept his hand in politically, notably in the 2000 presidential race on behalf of Democratic nominee Al Gore.
The center ring, however, may be reserved for the melee involving three Republicans seeking the District 5 seat. They are lawyer John Ryder, a GOP veteran with a chestful of I.O.U.s and a determination to cash them in; financial planner Bruce Thompson, a newcomer who has filled up a few cash buckets himself; and Jerry Cobb, a contractor who has long been a principal spokesperson for those dissatisfied with the reigning hierarchy of the local Republican Party.
Ryder's partisans agree with his conclusion that, having acted for two decades as a guiding figure in party affairs, providing key assistance or direct management in almost all important races during that time, and serving today as a Republican national committeeman from Tennessee, he has, as he puts it, come into "my time" to wear the mantle of candidate.
Discontented Republicans are, of course, likely to regard the former chairman's extensive history to be liability rather than asset.
Thompson is a new face who talked up the race with many of the party's leading figures -- not excluding Ryder -- before he cast his die as a candidate. One of his key backers, city council member Jack Sammons (who doubles as the local Republican treasurer), recently hosted a fund-raiser for Thompson which hoisted his already impressive total all the way up to what the candidate claims is a war chest of $75,000.
Cobb won't raise much money, but he has at his disposal the same hardy, stubborn, and dedicated corps of supporters who helped him mount a credible challenge last year to the reelection of local GOP chairman Alan Crone.
After the Monday night meeting of the Southeast Shelby Republican Club (which had seen a spirited free-for-all forum among the three GOP candidates for sheriff), Ryder and Thompson had a jesting exchange over the issue of whether Thompson might attend a forthcoming Ryder fund-raiser (one subscribed to by a who's who of party figures).
"Only if you pay," said Ryder, observing that his ticket price of $250 was more reasonable than the $1,000-a-head asked for the Sammons affair.
"Well, you get what you pay for," responded Thompson. "It just shows a greater willingness on the part of my supporters."
The exchange continued along such lines, with Ryder suggesting helpfully that if Thompson did make it to his fund-raiser (to be hosted by department store magnate and former legislator Brad Martin at the Saks Conference Center next Tuesday), "You'll get lost in the crowd."
"Not if I come with my girlfriend," said Thompson, referring to a recent Miss Tennessee.
The exchange was good-natured but tinged with an acidity that could turn quite sharp in the heat of future combat.
There are those in the Republican Party who see a handwriting-on-the-wall in Ryder's decision to enter a race on his own rather than guide the campaign for county mayor of state Representative Larry Scroggs, interpreting the decision as something less than a vote of confidence in Scroggs' general election prospects in a year in which county demographics have shifted in favor of the Democrats.
And there are other Republicans who fear that the three-way District 5 primary could engender divisive feelings that could hurt the party in any case.
Crone, for one, professes to be untroubled about the prospect, seeing the contest as one that could generate high interest among party cadres and thus not only boost voting levels in other Republican primary races but generate interest in the general election contests to come.
Contests that are much more likely to be simple one-on-ones and not three-on-a-match.