For some time, the gubernatorial campaign of Republican nominee Van Hilleary was presumed to be on life support. In a way, it still is, but the support is coming from high places now, as the Bush administration itself, buoyed by new polls showing the 4th District congressman within striking distance of Phil Bredesen, is palpably lending its influence.
On Tuesday last week, the president made a visit to Nashville for a big-ticket fund-raiser in GOP senatorial candidate Lamar Alexander's honor (followed by a photo-op visit to a Nashville school that literally everybody -- Alexander, Hilleary, and Democratic senatorial candidate Bob Clement -- got in on).
Clement worked overtime to lobby the media, statewide and national, into reporting that he traveled back to Washington later Tuesday with Bush aboard Air Force One. Even Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bredesen connected to the event in absentia, noting in a press release that the school in question was one of those built on his watch as Nashville's mayor during most of the '90s.
But the point of the presidential visit was, of course, to boost the GOP's statewide candidates, and Hilleary got some special stroking the very next day in Memphis, where a Wednesday-morning fund-raising breakfast brought to the downtown Plaza Club no less an eminence than former President George H.W. Bush, who called himself "41" to distinguish himself from his son and successor by one remove, "43."
An amiable, ingratiating presence as ever, the senior Bush joked about planning another -- and final -- parachute jump for his 80th birthday (less than two years off) and charmed the crowd with details of his domestic life -- though he inadvertently echoed an embarrassing lapse of 1992, when, during his unsuccessful presidential-reelection campaign, he demonstrated unfamiliarity with a grocery store scanner. In Memphis, he boasted of overseeing the Bush-family TV set but couldn't remember what to call a remote control, referring to it as "that thing you change the channels with -- the push-button."
Even so, Hilleary was glad for the boost. And the lofty stature of the occasion was lost on neither him nor his wife Meredith Hilleary, a schoolteacher, who had her own moment to remember when, during the automobile ride taking the former president from the airport to the Plaza Club, Bush turned to her and explained that his tie was askew, and, since "Bar" was not around to fix it, would she mind doing the honors? The surprised Meredith complied, adding later, "I couldn't keep my hand from shaking."
On Monday of this week, White House political director Ken Mehlman came to Nashville with other administration biggies to oversee a fund-raising dinner for both Hilleary and Alexander. And on Tuesday, Mehlman met with the Capitol Hill press corps at Vanderbilt-Loew's Plaza and hooked up with various other Tennessee scribes via conference phone. His message: Hilleary's campaign is a key one on the GOP's national radar.
As Mehlman spelled that out, the urgency of a Hilleary victory -- which everyone acknowledges would have to be of the come-from-behind variety -- had to do with support of the president's program. Hilleary, said Mehlman, was one of the 13 conferees who wrote the president's vaunted "No Child Left Behind" education bill. The congressman was touted also for his work on welfare and fiscal issues.
Hilleary has "a very impressive record as a reformer," said Mehlman, who insisted, "This isn't about the presidential election. It's not about us. It's about education reform, about the president having a partner at the state level."
No one, of course, was totally taken in by that. For a president whose disputed election in 2000 depended on his capture of Tennessee's 11 electoral votes, being able to rely on the personnel and machinery of a friendly state government here in 2004 is, to say the least, a desideratum -- especially since it looks more and more as though President Bush's Democratic challenger may be his neck-and-neck opponent of two years ago, former Vice President Al Gore.
Gore, who was one of the rare Democratic senators in 1991 to give the senior President Bush full support for his then-pending war on Iraq, surprised many observers on Monday when, instead of offering the current President Bush his unqualified support, essentially called for severe restraints upon the president's intended actions against Saddam Hussein.
Simultaneously with his aggressive stance toward Bush, Gore has been continuing the "fence-mending" effort in Tennessee he promised after the embarrassing -- and crucial -- loss in his native state in 2000. Not only have he and wife Tipper Gore purchased a new home in the Nashville area, he continues to teach part-time at Fisk University, and he has made conspicuous and regular appearances elsewhere in Tennessee -- including two highly visible ones so far in Memphis during the current campaign year.
From President Bush's point of view, it has become important that Hilleary hold his end up. Mehlman dismissed out of hand a somewhat obsolete question Tuesday from a Nashville reporter who wondered if the administration had "written off" the GOP's gubernatorial candidate; Mehlman's very presence in Nashville belied the premise, of course, as had former President Bush's journey to Memphis last week.
How well is Hilleary holding up his end? Astonishingly well, considering that, for most of the two years he has in effect been running, he has faced both widespread media ridicule as a lightweight and less than abundant enthusiasm from his own party's establishment. The 4th District congressman's estrangement from Governor Don Sundquist is notorious, and though rumors abounded last year that Hilleary had visited the governor in vain search of an endorsement, the congressman has denied them, and he certainly seems to be doing all right without the lame-duck governor's support.
Indeed, when, during the Republican primary season, Sundquist, burdened among his partymates by his dogged and futile support of a state income tax, let it be known that he favored Hilleary's opponent, former state Representative Jim Henry, it was Hilleary's campaign that trumpeted the headline "SUNDQUIST SEEKS THIRD TERM!" in one of its press releases.
And, in talking off the cuff last week about the second of two debates he has had so far with Bredesen, Hilleary made an interesting Freudian slip. "Sundquist didn't waste any time! He came right out of his corner slugging!" said the GOP hopeful before correcting himself: "Oh, I meant Bredesen did."
Conventional wisdom has it that Hilleary has held his own in the two debates so far, and there has now arisen between the two gubernatorial campaigns a debate over debates -- Bredesen insisting that the two men keep to a schedule proposed quite early, which would include high-profile debates in the state's major urban centers, and Hilleary countering with a proposal for a multitude of "flatbed" debates out in the state's more rural locales.
Hilleary, who can adopt a shucksy manner more readily than Bredesen, has won repeated elections in the formerly Democratic-dominated 4th District, which snakes through Tennessee's boondocks from east to west without encountering a major media market along the way. And the Republican's TV commercials differ from the more didactic Bredesen's in stressing his military past (as a Gulf War pilot) and using NASCAR-like images to suggest he would get Tennessee's slumping economy fired up again.
For whatever reason, a race that conventional wisdom once virtually conceded to Bredesen has become ultra-competitive. A Mason-Dixon poll last week showed Bredesen with only a two-point lead, 44-42, with 14 undecided or leaning to fringe candidates. That wasn't radically different from Hilleary's own poll, which has the numbers 39-39, with 23 percent undecided or leaning to independent challengers Ed Sanders and John Jay Hooker (yes, that John Jay Hooker, who, as the Democratic nominee in 1998, ran a single-issue race based on campaign-finance reform and lost badly to Sundquist).
Hilleary is handicapped as a campaigner in that his basic Republican theme of financial retrenchment doesn't necessarily jibe well with his emphasis on being an "education governor," but in recent appearances before friendly audiences (like last month's luncheon of the Shelby County Republican Women), he has summoned a good deal of passionate and sincere-sounding outrage about the low status of Tennessee education.
For all the closeness of the polls just now, Bredesen is still favored. He has put away the curiously on-again, off-again emotional manner of his losing 1994 campaign against Sundquist and has become a dependably benign and attentive figure on the stump. Moreover, his achievements as mayor of Nashville -- the Titans, the Predators, a new library, new schools and parks -- reinforce his image as a dependable executive who can, in his phrase, "manage" Tennessee back into solvency.
But Hilleary, having shown himself to be something other than a doofus, is a clear winner in the expectations game. And, though Bredesen matched him point-for-point as an income-tax opponent when that issue was before the legislature, Hilleary has cast doubt on his opponent's long-term attitude on taxes and may have gained some traction.
* Hilleary isn't, by the way, the only gainer against the odds board. Democratic senatorial candidate Clement, made to look hopelessly out of it by a recent poll showing him 18 percent behind Alexander, has now climbed to a perch of only eight points back, according to the latest Zogby poll.
The Clement camp cites a poll of its own, which shows that when both senatorial candidates have the same degree of name recognition, they run even. The irony of this one is that the name "Clement," back in the '50s/'60s heyday of the Nashville congressman's father, the late Governor Frank Clement, had no peer as far as name recognition went.
Clement remains optimistic, though his best chances of winning lie in making charges of corporate hanky-panky stick against the amiable and (as of the end of the GOP primary) moderate-seeming Alexander, whose former business arrangements have often been under attack but never so much as to weaken his electoral efforts.
* Former Shelby County Democratic chairman Sidney Chism believes he was mischaracterized by state Representative Kathryn Bowers, who in this space recently charged that Chism has handpicked and backed primary candidates against herself and other Democratic legislators. Bowers sought to expand the county Democratic coordinating committee on the grounds that its membership is remote from voters' concerns. Chism notes that he received 22,389 votes as a candidate for the state Democratic committee this year, more than the 4,071 votes Bowers got in her successful legislative-district primary race.