November 8, 2002, Friday, BC cycle
Tennessee politicians play prominent national roles

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: Political News

LENGTH: 783 words

DATELINE: NASHVILLE, Tenn.

Smart and ambitious, he’s considered potential presidential material – and he’s from Tennessee.

Actually, he’s not one man but three.

Tennessee boasts a trio of prominent politicians playing high-profile national roles, highlighted Friday by U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.’s announcement that he would wage an underdog campaign for House Democratic leader.

Besides Ford, there’s U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, the chief architect of the Republicans’ recapture of the Senate. Frist’s future is, as the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call put it after Tuesday’s elections, “paved with political gold.”

And, of course, there’s former Vice President Al Gore, who won the popular vote for president in 2000 and may challenge President Bush again in 2004.

“I’m sure Harold Ford’s ambition is to be president,” said Ron Faucheux, editor and publisher of Washington-based Campaigns & Elections magazine. “We know Al Gore’s has been.”

And many analysts see Frist as a potential Republican hopeful in 2008, although Faucheux stressed, “The Republicans basically have a six-year wait and a lot can change.”

Besides those three, Faucheux said he would add a fourth name: U.S. Sen.-elect Lamar Alexander, the former two-term Tennessee governor who’s already sought the White House twice.

Faucheux doesn’t see Alexander making another presidential run but said, “I think Lamar Alexander is going to have a major national role and stature for a freshman member of the Senate.”

At least one national expert says there’s a reason for all the Tennessee political stars. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Tennessee has become one of the most important swing states.

“It used to be heavily Democratic. Now it’s been moving steadily to the Republicans,” Sabato said.

“But as Tuesday proved, it’s still winnable by both parties, so both parties are paying a lot of attention to Tennessee.”

Indeed, Tennesseans split their votes on Tuesday, choosing Republican Alexander for the Senate but putting Democrat Phil Bredesen in the governor’s mansion.

“There is no question that Tennessee occupies a pivotal place on the national landscape,” said Lindsey Taylor, Republican National Committee spokeswoman.

Taylor pointed out – as the GOP likes to do – that Gore’s loss of his home state cost him the 2000 election.

For Gore, proving that Tennessee might support him in 2004 is essential to his presidential hopes, Sabato said.

Tennessee also figures heavily in Frist’s political prospects, he said.

Frist “has been mentioned in more places for the 2008 presidential contest than any other single potential candidate, including Jeb Bush,” Sabato said, referring to the Florida governor who is the president’s brother.

“Why is that? Again, because Tennessee is a vital swing state. It links the North, the South and the border states. It’s a pivotal state, beautifully positioned, geographically and otherwise.”

Frist, a surgeon-turned-senator, used his outsider status to help push three-term Democratic incumbent Jim Sasser out of office in 1994. But that was then. Frist, whom Esquire magazine this week named one of America’s 43 “Best and Brightest” people, spearheaded the GOP’s successful 2002 Senate campaign effort.

The 32-year-old Ford, meanwhile, wouldn’t even be eligible to run for president until 2008. The minimum age is 35.

Ford, first elected at age 26, succeeded his father, Harold Ford Sr., in representing the Memphis area. Gore chose his fellow Tennessean to keynote the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

In Sabato’s view, Tennessee serves as a national indicator of “which way the wind is blowing politically.” He said that’s a change for a state that previously has produced mainly marginal political figures, except for Gore.

But University of Tennessee political scientist Bill Lyons takes a different view.

“We’ve had a pretty good run, especially of senators who played prominent roles,” Lyons said.

Besides Gore and Frist, Lyons pointed to former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and retiring Sen. Fred Thompson, familiar to millions as Republican counsel to the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee and an actor in more than a dozen movies.

Tennessee also produced three presidents – Andrew Johnson, James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson.

Like Lyons, Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer said the Tennesseans’ status may have more to do with coincidence than anything.

“Gore lost his home state, so a lot of focus has been on Tennessee,” Geer said. “Frist is just a successful politician and has been able to do well. I don’t think that has anything to do particularly with Tennessee.”

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