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Among the notables at local GOP headquarters Monday night was former congressman Van Hilleary, the 2002 Republican candidate for governor.

Shelby County’s Republicans managed a good show of force Monday night for the Bush-Cheney ticket and other GOP hopefuls, as several of the party’s statewide notables rode in via bus for an election-eve rally before a sizeable crowd at local party headquarters on Ridgeway.

Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the luminaries who had just hit some political hot spots in West Tennessee on behalf of the GOP ticket were potential U.S. Senate candidates in 2006. Others were already on the premises.

One of the latter was former 7th District U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant, now of Jackson, who was mildly critical of two potential opponents. One was Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, who wasn’t on hand in Memphis but had been aboard the “Bush Victory Special” further east in Tennessee and who has already begun a campaign for the seat that current Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will be vacating. Frist intends a presidential run in 2008.

“He shouldn’t be starting his fund-raising now, when we have the Bush effort going and various other races important to the party. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about that,” said Bryant concerning Corker’s early efforts.

And, about State Rep. Beth Harwell, one of those shortly to arrive on the bus, Bryant was actually complimentary, in a left-handed sort of way. “I think it’s great if Beth runs.” He said the possibility reminded him of the 1994 Republican primary for the 7th district congressional seat, which he eventually won. “You remember? It started out with me and [then Germantown mayor] Charles Salvaggio and [former local GOP chairman] Maida Pearson. If Maida hadn’t been in, there probably would have been a congressman Salvaggio, and I’d probably have been shoveling trash in Jackson for the next several years.”

Other than this intimation that a split in the 2006 congressional race would benefit him in the same way that the one in 1994 presumably had, Bryant did not elaborate. Also on hand at the headquarters before the bus arrived was current 7th District Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who won the seat after Bryant vacated it to make an unsuccessful Senate primary race against fellow Republican Lamar Alexander two years ago.

“Wait and see” is how Blackburn described her attitude toward a possible candidacy for the Frist Senate seat in 2006.

Harwell, who headed up the contingent of Republicans who ultimately arrived to kindle Monday night’s rally, did not have an opportunity to comment on her 2006 plans, but former 4th District congressman Van Hilleary, who was the GOP’s unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial standard-bearer, did.

“I’m ahead right now,” said Hilleary, referencing a statewide poll showing him in the lead over other potential GOP candidates, “but I’ve got to worry about Corker.” Going on with tongue presumably in cheek concerning the wealthy Chattanoogan, he asked rhetorically, “How much money do you think he’ll raise before the end of the year? $18 million? Anyhow, I’ve got to worry about the money he’ll have.”

In the midst of these musings, Hilleary was approached by a well-wisher who urged him to consider running in 2006 against Governor Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who defeated him two years ago.

“I don’t think he’ll be easy to beat,” Hilleary replied.

Meanwhile, there was this year’s election to complete. Speaking to the crowd about that, Blackburn quipped, “We’re the state that made Florida relevant.” Meaning: Bush’s statewide victory over Gore in 2000 gave the Sunshine State, with its month-long vote-counting controversy, the opportunity to decide the presidential election in Bush’s favor.

State Rep. Tre Hargett of Bartlett, who is Republican leader in the House, has been careful about making sweeping predictions concerning Tuesday’s legislative outcomes, but told the crowd, “We’ve had 140 years of Democratic control of the legislature. Tomorrow will be the first day of 141 years of Republican control.”

Speakers at the event besides the forementioned included Memphis lawyer David Kustoff, the Bush campaign chairman for Tennessee; local GOP chairman Kemp Conrad; state Representative Paul Stanley; state Senator Mark Norris; and former Tennessee Governor Winfield Dunn, formerly of Memphis, now of Nashville.

Former congressman Ed Bryant (2nd from right) and Probate Court clerk Chris Thomas get some popcorn from young helpers at Monday night's GOP election-eve rally.

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