Thursday, February 15, 2001

Big Fred's Decision

Thompson's understudies were out in force at the local GOP Lincoln Day Dinner.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 15, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Although there was no particular reason for it to be so, the word had got out in advance of last Saturday's keynote speech by U.S. Senator Fred Thompson at the Shelby County Republicans' Lincoln Day Dinner that he might 'fess up as to his plans for 2002.

A good deal of suspense has been invested in the question of how Thompson will resolve his options, which are: 1) to stay where he is and run for reelection to the Senate; 2) to cut loose from the Senate and run for governor; 3) to return to Hollywood (where he filmed 18 movies) as the successor to Motion Picture Association president Jack Valenti; 4) none of the above.

Even the last option is considered possible (though unlikely), since Thompson has always had an air of listening to those proverbial inner drums and traveling at his own pace to his own destination. He is, quite literally, not to be rushed -- as his nervous would-be handlers in the 1994 Senate race, which he started slow and finished fast, found out, and as all those who urged him in vain to run for president after 1996 also discovered.

In any case, Thompson's much-ballyhooed visit to Memphis on Saturday attracted not only the usual thousand-or-so Lincoln Day banqueteers but a largish corps of GOP politicians whose own plans for 2002 depend on his.

Among them were U.S. Representatives Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, of Tennessee's 7th and 4th congressional districts, respectively; State Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Franklin); Memphis lawyer David Kustoff; Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor; State Rep. Larry Scroggs (R-Germantown); and Dr. Philip Langsdon, a Germantown/Memphis plastic surgeon who was Shelby County GOP chairman for two terms in the 1990s.

Until recently, Bryant and Hilleary were virtually interchangeable as potential successors to Thompson or, alternatively, as rival claimants to the governorship should Big Fred decide to stay put in the Senate. A few weeks back, however, Bryant hazarded the intriguing ploy of opting out of the governor's race, come what may, and either running for the Senate, if that race opened up, or running for re-election to the House.

The latter prospect quite naturally dismays the last several persons on the aforementioned list. Messrs. Kustoff, Taylor, Scroggs, and Langsdon all aspire to Bryant's congressional seat and would like nothing better than to see their congressman move up and out.

It was with that in mind that Bryant, one of the preliminary speakers at Saturday night's banquet, tucked his tongue in cheek and said from the dais, "When it was time for me to come up here, I looked around and saw David Kustoff and Brent Taylor and Larry Scroggs and Phil Langsdon out there, and I was almost afraid to get up and leave my seat!"

He might have added the name of Blackburn, who was there with her personal guru and adviser Raymond Baker. Blackburn was asked: Why had she come? "For America," she said. (She actually said that.) Another Middle Tennessee pol in attendance put it otherwise: "She thinks that in congressional redistricting, she'll get put in the 7th, and she's ready to go, too, if Bryant tries to go up."

Blackburn, it will be remembered, took a run at Bart Gordon's 6th District congressional seat in 1992 before doing a stint as head of the state's film commission and then running successfully for the state Senate in 1998. But he still has congressional ambitions, it seems clear.

But Blackburn and company will have to wait just a bit longer to see where their destinies lie. As he indicated Saturday, Fred Thompson is not ready to tip his hand. "I've got a few months to decide," he opined before his speech, which consisted mainly of Republican boilerplate and contained nary a hint as to his political intentions.

If Thompson does eventually decide to run for the governorship, he will almost certainly have the Republican nomination for the asking, and Rep. Hilleary will be up against it. He continues to indicate that he remains in the running for the Senate, and chief aide Jim Burnette, a former state GOP chairman, promises that a race between Hilleary and Bryant would be "one of the most polite races in history."

But there are some who have concluded -- on what evidence, it's hard to say -- that an unspoken arrangement exists between Bryant and Thompson, whereby the latter will indeed go on to run for governor, leaving the way open for Bryant to succeed him.

In that scenario, or even in a less conspiratorial one that has Thompson in a gubernatorial race, Bryant's potentially win-win ploy is invoked -- one of appearing to have deferred graciously to Hilleary for one office while relegating the other to himself.

In the event, of course, Hilleary -- who recently took some Tennesseans on a tour which included the Senate cloakroom and experimentally sat in a lounge chair there which he declared "fits my fanny" -- is prepared to contest the senatorial issue with Bryant, and it remains to be seen just how polite that turns out to be.

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