Even as firm battle lines were being drawn in Republican ranks on the matter of a successor to U.S. Senator Fred Thompson [see separate story], thing were somewhat fuzzier with Tennessee Democrats.
Most speculation centered on the state's Democratic congressmen, however, and one of them -- 9th District Rep. Harold Ford Jr., just back from a fact-finder in Afghanistan, spent Friday and Saturday calling influential Democrats and sounding them out about his making a race for the Senate this year.
One of those called was Mayor Willie Herenton, who reportedly said he would be willing to support the most celebrated current member of a political family, the Fords of Memphis, with whom he has had a running feud.
Even if so, however, that did not resolve the question of what would happen to the 9th District congressional seat currently held by Ford. Would the Fords try to retain it with a family member -- say, Jake Ford, brother of the current congressman? Or would Herenton bend his efforts toward capturing the seat for one of his proteges, like lawyer Rickey Willkins?
Would, for that matter, well regarded Democrats like Blue Cross/Blue Shield executive Calvin Anderson be tempted to run?
How dependent are long-term family fortunes -- including those of former congressman Harold Ford Sr., now a highly paid consultant -- on possession of the 9th District seat as a secure power base?
Of course, Ford may not run after all, but the number and intensity of his phone calls the last two days suggest that he is serious -- if for no other reason than that his political star, which burns bright indeed in national and statewide Democratic and media circles, might lose lustre if he passed up a chance to run in an open race of importance.
Memories are still fresh of Ford's yearlong flirtation with a 2000 Senate race against Bill Frist,one that may have been aborted by the devastating loss suffered by the Ford clan in 1999 when then city councilman Joe Ford (now an appointed county commissioner seeking election in his own right)lost badly in an effort to unseat Mayor Herenton.
In a sense, the sudden withdrawal of Fred Thompson from his reelection campaign and the consequent creation of an open seat has put Rep. Ford on the spot -- calling his bluff, as it were.
Of the state's other Democratic congressmen, the notoriously cautious John Tanner of the 8th District was considered a viable candidate but unlikely to take the gamble of a Senate race. Bart Gordon of the 6th District had not committed himself, while the 5th District's Bob Clement, who represents Nashville, is in the position of having possibbly cried wolf too many times on statewide races, so far exclusively in aborted gubernatorial runs.
The names of Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, who recently withdrew from the Shelby County Mayor's race, and State Senator Steve Cohen have received some play, but Cohen indicated it was unlikely he would attempt another statewide race (he run unsuccessfully for governor in 1994).
A dark horse candidate is Memphis entrepreneur John Lowery, who is hoping to put his business (Revelation Corporation) on a sound enough, self-sustaining basis in the next month so that he could consider running.
"If none of the congressmen end up doing it, I'm in," Lowery said on Friday.
As it happens, an ex-congressman has expressed some interest as well -- former U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, now a consultant living in Nashville, who lost the 1994 special election that saw Thompson first elected to the Senate.