If Ed Bryant
believes he is an underdog to Lamar Alexander
in the current Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, he did not betray that sense of things to the crowd of several score that welcomed him at Shelby Farms Monday afternoon for the last stop of his statewide announcement tour.
Neither did the crowd, a keyed-up group of local GOP celebrities and other backers who seemed to share the 7th District congressmans sense that something was going on in Tennessee Ð that something being a grass-roots rebellion against Alexander or, more precisely, against the Republican establishment figures that have been backing the former Tennessee governor and twice failed presidential candidate as a successor to outgoing GOP Senator Fred Thompson
Its happening from the bottom up, declared Bryant. This isnt going to be a
from-the-top-down election. Alexander was the candidate of some people in Washington and some people in Nashville, said Bryant, who added that on a tour of East Tennessee, a supposed Alexander stronghold, I didnt see any support for Lamar. I had been thinking that maybe we could hold our own up there. Now I think we can carry it.
Bryant said he had commitments of support from 30 of the 42 Republican members of the state House of Representatives and nine of the 15 members of his party in the state Senate. And most of the others were uncommitted rather than leaning to Alexander, he said.
The congressman was unsparing in his criticism of his Republican opponent who, he said, had not won an election in 20 years, had a national reputation of not being conservative, and who was indecisive. Implicitly comparing the moderate Alexander to former vice President Al Gore
. Bryant said this state did not vote for such a person as president in 2000. By his own prior admission, Alexander was not suited for legislative service and was on the wrong side of several contemporary issues, Bryant alleged..
In 1985, while governor, Alexander advocated a state income tax, Bryant said, reminding the crowd that Don Sundquist
has endorsed him (but not reminding them that current Governor Sundquist, whose support for income-tax legislation has soured his name with may Tennessee Republicans, had plucked Bryant himself out of relative obscurity by recommending him to the first President Bush for District Attorney General in 1993).
Now he says he didnt mean it, said Bryant scornfully of Alexanders recent attempts to distance himself from that early flirtation with a state income tax. The congressman also reminded the crowd that, while running for president in 1999, Alexander had dismissed then opponent George W. Bush
s phrase compassionate conservatism as so much weasel words.
Describing himself as a known conservative, Bryant said Alexander was currently engaged in an effort to remake himself ideologically, to jump on my back, but Im trying to toss him off, trying to get away from him. It was time for a change, Bryant said, time to permit the old Political Guard to gracefully retire.
As a local show of strength, Bryants climactic announcement-tour appearance in Shelby County was convincing. Though outgoing Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout
, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons
, and several other local GOP officials have endorsed former Governor Alexander, the turnout of Bryant supporters Monday was impressive. Shelby County Commissioner Morris Fair
introduced him, and numerous other local officials (e.g., County Trustee Bob Patterson
, Probate Court Clerk Chris Thomas
, Register Tom Leatherwood
) and candidates for office were on hand.
Republican candidate for Shelby County mayor George Flinn
was moved to recall that he and Bryant had been members of the same social fraternity (Sigma Nu) at Ole Miss --as had GOP Senate leader Trent Lott
, who has expressed reservations about President Bushs reported preference for Alexander. Flinns Republican opponent in the mayors race, State Representaive Larry Scroggs
, was even more firmly attached to Bryant; his son Kenny Scroggs
is the congressmans Memphis-area field representative.
And the statewide grass-roots sentiment of which Bryant spoke was visible enough that several national reporters and columnists thought to point out over the weekend or on Monday that Alexander might be in for a serious battle in Tennessee.
In the last several weeks a series of increasingly blunt signals have come out of Washington to the effect that Alexanders candidacy, just as Lott had indicated, enjoyed the backing of the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, headed by Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist
While acknowledging Monday that some elements of the NRSC were pushing hard for Alexander, Bryant said Frist himself had not expressed a preference. As for speculation that, between now and Thursdays filing deadline for statewide candidates, President Bush might make a point of stating a preference for Alexander, perhaps even in Tennessee, Bryant said, Thats not going to happen.
And the congressmans campaign manager, Justin Hunter
, was blunt on the subject. Even if the president should do that, Ed Bryant is going to continue to be a candidate.