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 the Shelby Farms recreational area here Monday afternoon for the last stop of Bryant's 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 congressman's sense that "something was going on" in Tennessee -- that "something" being a grassroots 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.
"It's happening from the bottom up," declared Bryant. "This isn't going to be a from-the-top-down election." Alexander was the candidate of some people in Washington, D.C., and some people in Nashville, but Bryant said on a tour of East Tennessee, a supposed Alexander stronghold, "I didn't 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, Bryant alleged, Alexander was "not suited" for legislative service and was on the wrong side of several contemporary issues.
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 many 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 'didn't mean it,'" said Bryant scornfully of Alexander's 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 "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 I'm 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, Bryant's 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, known as a moderate, 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 Bush's reported preference for Alexander. Flinn's Republican opponent in the mayor's race, state Representative Larry Scroggs, was even more firmly attached to Bryant; his son, Kenny Scroggs, is the congressman's Memphis-area field representative.
And the statewide grassroots sentiment of which Bryant spoke was visible enough that several national reporters and columnists had 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 has come out of Washington to the effect that Alexander's candidacy, just as Lott had indicated, enjoyed the backing of the White House and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), headed by Tennessee senator Bill Frist.
While acknowledging Monday that "some elements" of the NRSC were pushing hard for Alexander, Bryant maintained steadfastly that Frist himself had not expressed a preference. As for speculation that, between now and Thursday's filing deadline for statewide candidates, President Bush might make a point of stating a preference for Alexander, perhaps even in Tennessee, Bryant said, "That's not going to happen."
And the congressman's 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."
One of the more impressive turnouts of the political season was the announcement, at Isaac Hayes' in Peabody Place last Friday noon, of a reelection bid from 9thDistrict U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. It looked like the much-anticipated Senate announcement from Ford that never took place. (One of the cheerleaders on hand was sometime Ford-family nemesis Mayor Willie Herenton.)
Asked where he had been the previous week when other prominent Tennessee Democrats were onstage in Nashville with Senate nominee-presumptive Bob Clement, Ford deadpanned, "I was on the road from Nashville to Memphis." But he'd released an enthusiastic statement of support for Clement.