In an announcement Thursday that was a shocker, not so much because of what it said, but when it was said -- suddenly and without advance notice -- U.S. Senator Fred Thompson took himself out of the 2002 governor's race.
Thompson said he was "drawn to the challenge," but had decided to focus his efforts in Washington for the foreseeable future, concentrating during "an unusually important year up here" on helping President George W. Bush with aspects of the presidential agenda.
Thompson's announcement left 4th District U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary the odds-on favorite to become the Republican nominee for governor, as his only serious potential rival, fellow GOP congressman Ed Bryant of the 7th District, had said recently he would not run for governor but would consider running for the Senate.
At the time Bryant's statement drew speculation that he and Thompson had an understanding concerning the opening-up of the incumbent's Senate seat. Thursday's news blew that prospect aside and left Hilleary the winner in a subtle game of maneuver between the two congressman, each of whom for most of the last year had been looking at either the Senate or the governorship as a means of stepping up.
Bryant promptly issued his own statement Thursday, confirming his intention to run for reelection in the 7th District. It read:"In light of Senator Thompson's announcement today not to run for Governor, I thank him for his early decision and voice my continued support for him as my Senator. Our State is fortunate to have two outstanding men such as Senators Thompson and [Bill Frist] representing us in Washington.
Insofar as my personal plans, I have filed for reelection to the House in 2002. Given the likelihood of a reconfigured district due to the census, I look forward to the challenge of consolidating the Seventh District."
Also sidelined from intended action next year were several potential candidates for Bryant's 7th District congressional seat. They were: former state Bush campaign director David Kustoff of Memphis; Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor; State Rep. Larry Scroggs of Germantown; and former Shelby County Republican chairman Phil Langsdon. Another prospect in event of redistricting including her in the 7th was State Senator Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood.
Thompson, however, did not affirm that he would run again for the Senate, deferring any announcement on that and thus leaving room open for a change of plans once more by all the would-be upwardly mobile.
With Hilleary as the likely GOP nominee for governor in 2002, a spirited race may occur between Democrats for the right to contest the issue with him. So far U.S. Rep. Bob Clement of Nashville and former State Senator Andy Womack have filed papers allowing them to start raising money, and several other candidates, including former state Democratic chairman Doug Horne, former state Education Commissioner Charles Smith, and 8th District U.S. Rep. John Tanner are in the wings.
One public figure whose plans may change precipitately is Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, who had nursed gubernatorial ambitions at the time of his 1998 reelection, then let them slide in view of the likely candidacy of either Thompson or Bryant, with whom he shared a local base. The mayor -- beset though he is with a looming budgetary deficit problem of his own --may now want to rethink the situation.