Center Ring

Senate candidates Alexander and Clement compete for the middle-of-the-road vote.



The first of five planned debates between the two major-party U.S. Senate candidates is now in the can. After a televised encounter Monday night in Chattanooga, it is clear that Democratic candidate Bob Clement, currently the congressman representing Nashville, has his work cut out for him in hoping to overtake his Republican opponent, former Governor Lamar Alexander.

One of the ironies of Clement's situation was highlighted by polls taken during the past few weeks and showing his political future ebbing and flowing on wildly fluctuating findings. One day's survey would show him almost 20 points behind Alexander, another only eight, and the Clement camp's chief lobbying point was that, as the candidate himself urged on a recent evening in Memphis, "when our name-recognition is the same with a group of voters, we come out even."

What is astounding about this is that Clement has run for -- and held -- statewide office before, has been the capital city's man in Washington for more than a decade, and is the son of one of Tennessee's most legendary governors in modern times, Frank Clement, a magnetic orator whose keynote speech at the 1956 Democratic Convention mesmerized the nation's listeners.

The senior Clement was still serving as governor during the late '60s when an automobile accident terminated his life and career simultaneously. Indeed, it was almost entirely on the basis of the family name that son Bob was able to launch his own political career in the years following his father's death, winning election as a Public Service Commissioner and mounting a credible challenge for governor.

As the Democratic nominee for the 7th District congressional seat in 1982, he was upset by a Republican who later became governor, Don Sundquist, but his race that year, followed by his subsequent service in the Nashville-based 5th District, should have guaranteed wide name recognition in the state's two most populous areas.

The fact is that Clement, though arguably in possession of a quite lustrous vita (he also served terms as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority and as president of Cumberland University), has a persona problem that stems not from any dearth of ability (his gifts are generally recognized) or even from his diminutive stature (he stands at considerably less than six feet) but from the fact that he seems low-profile by nature, almost bashful -- an introvert in an extrovert's profession.

One difference between Clement and Alexander was dramatized during the televised debate Monday night in the periodic cutaway shots of either candidate reacting to what the other was saying. Alexander appeared to have the actor's gift of knowing when he was on camera; he seemed polite, attentive, shrewd, and skeptical as needed. When he smiled, it was in good-natured acknowledgment of the developing plot line.

Clement, on the other hand, seemed to pout and glower whenever his adversary was making a point that he deemed off the mark or unfair in what it suggested and to purse his lips when he was just listening. At several points, the camera caught him rolling his tongue in the hollow of his right cheek -- a maneuver that in close-up looked huge and almost volcanic.

In short, Alexander at all times had his public face on, while Clement's private self kept wandering into the proceedings like a lost child. It was a situation that could be interpreted to either man's credit or to either's blame, but in any age when appearances count for as much as issues, the cosmetic edge clearly belonged to the former governor.

Even the logistics of the TV studio in Chattanooga worked to Clement's disadvantage: Those who have seen them both in the flesh are aware that Clement is as ruddy of complexion as Alexander is, but the side of the set on which the congressman sat seemed to be bathed in an antiseptically yellow light, while the former governor had the benefit of pinker and more natural-looking hues, a state of affairs that somewhat equaled out on those rare occasions when Clement was able to stand center stage and field a question from a guest in the studio audience.

Echoes Of the Primary

From time to time, Clement has picked up and hurled at Alexander one of the barbs thrown at the Republican nominee by his erstwhile antagonist in the GOP Senate primary, U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant.

The kiss-and-make-up etiquette of partisan politics requires that intra-party rivals support each other even after the most bitter of primaries, and that between Alexander and Bryant was one such. Speaking at a recent luncheon meeting, the outgoing 7th District congressman dutifully endorsed -- and sported the stickers of -- both Alexander, whom he so recently was chastising on an almost daily basis, and congressional colleague Van Hilleary, the GOP gubernatorial nominee with whom Bryant played Alphonse-and-Gaston a few seasons back, when both men, equally ambitious, were eyeing both a Senate and a governor's race for 2002.

Though Bryant was no doubt sincere, the exercise had a bit of a pro forma feel to it, and Clement, perhaps overoptimistically, has frequently made appeals on the stump to the erstwhile Bryant voters, professing to represent their populist interests against the putatively more elitist and establishmentarian Alexander.

In any case, Clement has, as indicated, appropriated some of Bryant's weaponry, repeating the 7th District congressman's charges that Alexander was out of step with the Senate, which passed by a 97-0 vote on a corporate-reform measure that Alexander disapproved of, and strongly suggesting, as did Bryant, that the former governor had amassed his fortune by means of sweetheart deals that may have leveraged his governmental connections.

In Monday night's debate, as previously, Clement made much of a recently renewed $102 million contract between the state and Education Networks of America (ENA), a company on whose board Alexander sits for an annual salary of $60,000. Alexander should give the money back, Clement suggested, "but it hasn't happened."

For the record, Alexander has denied anything improper and has noted, as in the televised debate, that Clement, like himself, is a "multimillionaire." He made an attempt to turn the tables by recalling what he said was Clement's membership on the board of directors of a bank owned by the Butcher brothers, Jake and C.H., once-prominent Tennessee Democrats whose banks later failed, leading to federal fraud convictions for both men.

An apparently surprised Clement denied any such membership, but the Alexander campaign later e-mailed reporters copies of a photograph from the 1973 annual report of the City and County Bank of Knox County, showing a youthful Bob Clement as one of several "directors."

Though Clement quibbled about the meaning of the picture -- and the nature of his relationship to the bank and to the Butchers, whom he ended up on the wrong side of, politically, losing to Jake Butcher in the Democratic gubernatorial primary of 1978 -- and Alexander has pooh-poohed the nature of his ENA involvement, the fact is that both men have profited from private-sector opportunities their public prominence made easier for them.

There is no great surprise in this -- it is one of the unspoken perks of public life, conspicuously so in the careers of most recent American presidents, for example -- and there is nothing necessarily improper about it. In any case, the fallout from Monday night may make it more difficult henceforth for Clement to link Alexander with "Enron capitalism" -- though the former governor seems to have been measurably more active in the corporate sector than the congressman.

Clement may have more luck with another stratagem inherited from Bryant. In the primary, the GOP congressman made much of a remark made by Alexander early in the year to Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Tom Humphrey, who quoted the two-time presidential aspirant as saying, "I wanted to be president. The Senate will have to do."

Bryant interpreted the remark as demonstrating the arrogance of a lordly Alexander deigning to go slumming for what he regarded as a consolation prize. This is how Clement would prefer it be seen, as well.

As it happens, Alexander first learned of the possible repercussions of his statement while on a visit to the Flyer office during the primary. Informed of Bryant's first broadside on the subject, the former governor was clearly taken aback. He had made the statement near the end of a long interview at the close of a long day's worth of campaigning, he said, and had just let his guard down.

In subsequent interviews, Alexander would amend his response, suggesting that he had been indulging in some kind of levity. (That seems to be the favored approach these days of political figures confronted with potentially embarrassing quotations.) There is no reason why the statement should not be taken at face value, however, and no particular reason why any odium should attach to it. By definition, anybody who has tried for the presidency -- as Alexander did in the 1996 and 2000 cycles -- and failed is settling for less by seeking another public office later on.

A Moderate's Reemergence

What has intrigued some in the current race is the obvious ease with which Alexander has worn his Senate candidate's mantle -- contrasted with the relatively awkward and unconvincing manner of his two presidential races, in which, having compiled a moderate record as the successful two-term governor of Tennessee, he chose to run as a conservative's conservative -- even to the point, in 1996, of advocating the abolition of the Department of Education he once headed and, in 1999, of denouncing then rival George W. Bush's phrase "compassionate conservatism" as a case of "weasel words."

In his primary campaign this year against Bryant, Alexander was compelled once again to stress his conservative credentials but, since then, has reemerged as a reassuringly middle-of-the-road figure -- capable, for example, of stretching hands across partisan boundaries to form a "coalition" with Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, a nominal Democrat and former city schools superintendent who professes admiration for Alexander's educational reforms as governor during the '80s. Herenton's son Rodney, as well as his longtime aide Reginald French, briefly chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Coordinating Committee this year, are members of a newly formed "Shelby County Citizens Coalition" for Alexander.

Meanwhile, those red-meat Republicans who always distrusted Alexander for the very moderation he practiced as governor, when he had to make common cause with Democrats to get his programs enacted, have apparently been mollified by his stated allegiance in this campaign year to the programs of the Bush administration.

The difference between administrative and legislative functions being what it is, there is relatively little likelihood that a Senator Alexander would run afoul of his party's conservatives, though he -- like Clement -- has shown signs of wanting to brake the administration's headlong rush toward confrontation with Iraq. (While giving lip service to the president's pronouncements, Alexander has advocated a greater role for Congress and America's allies in the shaping of a military policy, and he makes a point of saying that his own interest is in domestic policy and in "winning the peace.")

Clement has proved a doughty campaigner, and his wife, Mary Clement, has won numerous admirers for her strength and sagacity on the campaign trail (though she, like her counterpart Honey Alexander, has been underemployed as a campaign surrogate). He has legitimate policy differences with Alexander -- notably on providing prescription-drug insurance for seniors through Medicare and imposing a form of price controls on drugs -- but his own history as a sometime fellow traveler with the Bush administration (on the initial Bush tax cuts, for example) makes it difficult for him to draw graphic contrasts.

With a month to go, it would seem to be the mellifluous-voiced Alexander's race to lose, but the undecideds in an electorate that has seen Republican Hilleary close the gap with Democrat Phil Bredesen, the long-term leader in that race, may reserve judgment for a few more weeks yet between candidates Alexander and Clement, both of whom are doggedly working the middle of the road.

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