After The Balloons 

The convention gave him a bounce, but will Gore carry Tennessee?

The convention gave him a bounce, but will Gore carry Tennessee?

Los angeles—Never let it be said that Tennessee delegates to last week’s Democratic National Convention have a short memory. If they invoked Sam Houston’s name once, they muttered it a thousand times. The same goes for Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk.

The message: One hundred seventy-one years after Tennessee lost Houston as governor—he resigned after the abrupt end to his marriage and later became governor of Texas—the state won’t let another favorite son fall to the Lone Star state. And 156 years after Polk was voted into the White House, Tennesseans aren’t going to miss this rare opportunity to elect another one of their own as president. (Polk was the second Tennessean to be elected president, following Andrew Jackson, who left office seven years before. A third, Vice President Andrew Johnson, became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.)

But no amount of sign-holding, screaming, and optimistic campaign dogma can change the fact that a Tennessee win for Gore—which party officials view as crucial to winning the presidency, because if he has problems here, he really has problems elsewhere—is not in the bag. In fact, Democrats are bracing themselves for the fight of a lifetime: Clinton/Gore took Tennessee only by a hair during the last two presidential elections, and the state went Republican in five of the six presidential elections before that.

If urban West Tennessee is predictably Gore’s for the taking, and if East Tennessee is Bush’s, figuring out what will happen in the relatively conservative areas of rural West Tennessee and Middle Tennessee isn’t quite as easy. Anything could happen in these areas, and so they will be the focus of a long, hard autumn for Tennessee Democrats.

“Gov. Sundquist has said that [Republicans] would carry the state,” state Sen. Roy Herron, director of the Gore 2000 campaign in Tennessee, told the Scene on the convention floor last week. “And besides Gov. Sundquist, there are two United States senators and the majority of the congressional delegation [who are Republican].” Beyond that, Gore nemesis George W. Bush will have “funding that is literally unprecedented in the history of the world.” All this means that “I take very seriously their threats,” Herron says. “And I certainly greatly respect their abilities.”

He’s hoping, though, that the 3 million or so registered voters in the Volunteer State will turn out and take seriously “a once-in-two lifetimes opportunity” to elect a president from Tennessee. “It’s been 156 years since we elected a Tennessean as president, and now we have a choice between Al Gore, who has been in every incorporated community in the state and many that aren’t, and someone who has only been to Tennessee on his way to Kennebunkport or on the way to raise money.”

Former Gov. Ned McWherter, still viewed in many ways as the leader of the state Democratic Party (given that no other Democrat has effectively assumed that charge since he left office in 1994), feels so strongly that Gore can’t take Tennessee for granted that he plans to lead a statewide bus tour this fall to promote the vice president. There will be the usual chorus of phone banks and the inevitable television ads, but “in my judgment,” McWherter says, “there’s nothing like going out there face-to-face and one-on-one asking people to vote.

“It’ll be a very active campaign. It will go down to the wire nationally, and I think it’ll be close in Tennessee,” McWherter continues. “Al can’t go to every community in Tennessee, but he’s been there. You ask George W. Bush where Tazewell, Tenn., is, and he probably couldn’t tell you. You ask him where Trimball, Tenn., is, and he probably couldn’t tell you. You ask him where Triune, Tenn., is, and he couldn’t tell you.”

Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who attended the convention until late Wednesday night, when he flew back to Nashville to preside over first-day-of-school festivities, predicts a Gore victory in Tennessee and doesn’t feel threatened by the other side’s efforts. “He’s won every election he’s run in Tennessee,” says Purcell, who served as state director for Tennessee’s Clinton/Gore campaign in 1996. “Tennessee has always supported him, and it will again.”

As for Bush’s adeptness at fund raising, Purcell says Gore is no slouch in that department either. “I think everybody’s pretty clear that Al Gore is a better-than-average fund-raiser as well.”

Will Cheek, former state Democratic Party chairman and perhaps the one Tennessean who can be counted on to offer no-smoke insights into statewide politics, says it’s easy to become starry-eyed in the midst of a national convention. “None of this that’s happening is real,” Cheek told the Scene last week, deviating from the state party’s stringent talking points. “It’s emotional. People are going to start to focus in September, and then it’ll start to mean something. The real question is, what does that first polling the first week and the second week in September say? That’s what you’ve got to watch. That’s real.”

Many of the convention delegates and elected officials who attended last week’s liberal group hug in Los Angeles personally know Al Gore, while most voters don’t, of course. Still, they think his longtime presence in Tennessee, which started with a congressional career in 1976 at the still-boyish age of 28, will carry him on election day in November. “I didn’t know Lyndon [Johnson]. I didn’t know Walter Mondale. We know Al,” says Memphis state Sen. Steve Cohen.

Had 1994 not been such a disastrous year for Democrats, Cohen says, they wouldn’t even be having this discussion about a possible Gore loss in Tennessee. (That was the year Sundquist beat Democrat Phil Bredesen to succeed Gov. McWherter, while Democratic U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper were getting unceremoniously clobbered for the state’s two senate seats.) “It’s only been a danger since we’ve elected a Republican governor the last two terms and two Republican senators,” Cohen explains. “We’ve not done well, although Clinton did carry the state.”

Perhaps state Democratic Party chairman Doug Horne, who has his eyes on the governorship in 2002 but hasn’t exactly had the most successful tenure as party leader, is the most optimistic of the bunch. “We’ll win Tennessee. That’s not any threat,” he declared dismissively from Tennessee’s posh convention suite in the Staples Center last week. “I think the difference in Texas and Tennessee is Bush is further ahead in Texas than Gore is in Tennessee, but they have statewide Republican leadership.”

Horne, who’s thrown enormous amounts of money at building a Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Nashville, is hoping the visibility of that monument will help heal a party that has been seemingly leaderless and literally unable to field a viable statewide candidate for the past two years. And he’s predicting this presidential election may be the coming-out celebration for his party, the time for Democrats to get their acts together statewide.

Filled with enthusiasm for this year’s presidential election, Horne is already looking ahead to the 2002 gubernatorial primary, which he says should feature at least two strong, monied Democrats. It won’t be the kind of wide-open primary voters saw in 1994, he says, because party leaders will put their heads together to present quality, not quantity. “We’re not going to let the Republicans raise more money than us, and we won’t be outworked.” Furthermore, he hopes for a noticeable departure from 1998, when the party fielded no strong or well-funded candidate for governor—John Jay Hooker won the nomination. Tennessee Republican Party chairman Chip Saltsman points out that, since 1994, “the [Tennessee Democratic] Party’s been in a shambles. I mean, the wheels are falling off.”

But for now, of course, the big question is how to get Tennessee voters to favor Gore in November, although the condition of the Democratic Party may well provide the answer—or so Republicans would like to think. Saltsman says that if many of the Democrats are admitting the state is up for grabs, it’s really not in Gore’s pocket. “The fact that they’re ginning up McWherter and the old guard to go across the state says something,” he observes. “I think that shows the state’s in play.”

While having Ned McWherter stumping aboard a hot, dusty bus is likely to make at least some impression on the older voters who helped elect him governor 14 years ago, Democrats are also working overtime to recruit new, young voters who will be attracted, for example, by the rising stock of 30-year-old Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., whom Gore afforded a prominent, prime-time speaking spot last week.

Gore offered Ford the prime-time spot after the GOP convention’s own entreaty to the Britney Spears crowd two weeks before in Philadelphia. Ford, the youngest member of Congress, delivered a smooth appeal to the nation’s untapped electorate, playing the Democratic version of the GOP’s 24-year-old George Prescott Bush, who extended a similar—but bilingual—plea to tender-aged voters in Philadelphia. Party leaders were also encouraging interviews with 21-year-old Chattanoogan Chris Anderson, Tennessee’s youngest delegate and the second or third youngest at the entire convention.

At least one young Tennessean needs no urging. State legislative intern Sam Jones, who missed the first day of his senior year at Overton High School last week to attend the convention, is only 17 now. “I’ll be 18 on Sept. 19, and you know where my vote’s going,” he says.

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