THOMPSON'S PULLOUT: THE AFTERMATH 

THOMPSON'S PULLOUT: THE AFTERMATH

On Friday, Day Two of the Great Thompson bombshell, rumors were beginning to race about, the thrust of them being that two current residents of the Potomac shores -- gentlemen named George W. Bush and Bill Frist -- played a large part in dissuading Tennessee's senior senator from trying to take up residence on the shores of the Cumberland, as governor.

The reports make sense. As the newly installed chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, Frist could never have been exactly ecstatic about the prospect of a Sure Thing like Thompson taking leave and putting his seat up for grabs.

And, with the Senate divided 50-50 at present and his presidential agenda at risk, Bush would surely just as soon hold on to whatever slight edge he has, as well.

What is striking about Thompson's announcement of non-candidacy Thursday is that it literally came out of nowhere: As recently as last weekend in Memphis, where he was the keynote speaker at the Shelby County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner, Thompson said there was no imminent deadline for his decision, that it might yet be months away.

Something must have happened in the meantime to speed things up -- and not just the appearance at the selfsame Lincoln Day dinner of seven Republican pols (count 'em, 7) who were eagerly hanging on Thompson's word. They were the two congressman, Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant, who plans to move up in the world were affected, as well as five congressional wannabes lusting after Bryant's seat.

Bryant, incidentally, had made an equally sudden Quick Change. As recently as Inauguration week in Washington, he was letting it be known that he was still open to seeking either the governorship or an open Senate seat. A week later, he had renounced a run for governor -- a move widely interpreted at the time as reflecting a possible understanding reached with Thompson.

Clearly, that wasn't the case; Bryant has let himself be out-maneuvered by his putative rival Hilleary, who never cut any bait publicly . (It's perhaps more accurate to say that Bryant may have out-maneuvered himself.)

The 7th District congressman's wife Cyndi joked last weekend that she had "held the door open" for a governor's race before closing it. It's, of course, axiomatic that her opinion would count for much with her husband, but it's probable that the decisive pressure came from elsewhere.

'A Crowded Field'

In the immediate aftermath of Thompson's opting out, not only did Hilleary step forward to assert his own probable candidacy, but so did former state economic and development commissiner Bill Baxter.

Among Democrats, U.S. Rep. Bob Clement of Nashville seemed to be hardening. And Clement said the obvious when he commented, "I don't think there's any doubt (Thompson) would have been a formidable candidate,'' Clement said. "And with him not in there, I can see a very crowded field in both the Republican and Democratic primaries."

One Democrat who won't be part of that crowd is former Governor Ned Ray McWherter, whose name has been floated by some partymates here of late but who said Thursday, "I appreciate everybody's interest, but I'm just too old for a draft. The draft has passed me by."

One of McWherter's talker-uppers had been state House of Representatives Speaker Jimmy Naifeh (D-Covington), who has also been touting 8th District congressman John Tanner of Union City , which worthy was honored by some potential boosters at a Nashville dinner last week.

Given McWherter's patent unavailability and Tanner's famous caution, of course, it could be that Naifeh is floating his own balloon by this indirect means.

Other Democrats who are serious possibilities for a gubernatorial race are former state Education Commissioner Charles Smith and former state Senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro. (Like Clement, Womack has already formed an exploratory committee.)

A long shot among Republicans is Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, who had let his interest be known a couple of years back when he was resoundingly reelected, then cooled off in deference to Thompson and Bryant, whom he shares a political base with.

Current fiscal woes have and a federal court order mandating improvements in the Shelby County jail have taken some of the bloom off Rout's prospects, but he has a reputation as a competent administrator.

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