This holiday season, visions of sugarplums are dancing in the heads of all the Republicans begging Bill Frist to run for governor.
They're not imagining the many glorious things Frist can do for Tennessee. They're thinking of the many glorious things Frist can do for their personal bank accounts.
Real-estate developers, road contractors, PR flacks, lobbyists and political consultants—everyone who can at least pretend to be a friend of Frist is hoping he'll run.
Frist says he'll announce his decision in January. For months, he's been widely expected to go for it. He raised tons of cash for state legislative candidates and even dutifully served as the grand marshal of the Mule Day Parade in Columbia. What more evidence do you need of his interest?
But now it's looking like he may disappoint. The latest thinking among Republican insiders is that the former senator just can't muster the all-important "fire in the belly."
"He has a political future. The question is how best to advance that future," says one GOP source. "The people around him who are encouraging him to run are the folks, frankly, who have a lot to gain themselves if he does it."
High on that list are developers and fundraisers Reese and Steve Smith, and Chip Saltsman, onetime minion of disgraced Gov. Don Sundquist. Saltsman would like to run Frist's campaign, become deputy governor, then parlay that job into lucrative PR/lobbying contracts, just like those who came before him. (See Dave Cooley, Peaches Simpkins and Tom Ingram.)
Of course, Frist's real goal is the presidency. The question is how to best fulfill that ambition. Should Frist take the Albert Schweitzer Path, as it's known in Republican circles, staying on the world stage by fighting AIDS and malnutrition and disease around the globe? Or should Frist become governor and immediately find himself beset by the urgent need to either raise taxes or cut the bejesus out of the budget?
"By all accounts, he's genuinely undecided," our GOP source says. "There are folks who are close to him who say there's no fire in the belly for it. What is it that he's going to see in state government that's going to make it sexy all of a sudden? The answer is not very much."
If not Frist, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, Memphis District Attorney Bill Gibbons and Chattanooga Congressman Zach Wamp are seen as the three most likely contenders.
Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn—the conservative firebrand from Brentwood—certainly doesn't lack for ambition, but she's still stinging from publicity over ethical lapses and may decide to sit out this one, some Republicans say.
Most observers seem to think Haslam will emerge as the leading contender—chiefly because the son of an oil tycoon can pour his own money into a campaign.
On a recent tour of newsrooms, Gibbons took a backhanded swipe at Haslam, a sure sign of Haslam's strength as a rival. Gibbons told reporters he respects Haslam for caring about public service when he could be enjoying "mansions and planes and yachts."
For his part, Wamp has been trying to defuse future attacks by talking a lot about his college-days addiction to cocaine, along with his miraculous defeat of the devil and coming to Jesus.
As for Democrats, the ranks of viable statewide candidates are thin. By most accounts, Harold Ford Jr. isn't running (or at least he's not telling anyone that he might) and hopes are fading for a party savior.
In a perverse way, November's GOP takeover of the state legislature might work to the Democrats' advantage by persuading one of the party's congressmen to step up. At least that's the thinking of some insiders.
If Republicans hold the legislature in 2010, they can draw new district lines that might lead to the defeat of at least two Democratic congressmen—Lincoln Davis and Bart Gordon—and perhaps John Tanner. So if you're going to lose your seat anyway, why not run for governor and go down swinging?
But the congressmen aren't feeling too threatened.
"It's kind of like pushing air through a balloon," says one Democratic source on the difficulty of redistricting. "It's harder than it looks."
To gerrymander them out of existence would require Republican congressmen to accept more Democratic voters into their districts. No one thinks they'll be willing to make that sacrifice.
"Republicans run the risk of making themselves vulnerable if they do too much tinkering," says another Democratic source.
Davis still might run, though that seems less likely after his appointment to the House Appropriations Committee, that great pork warehouse that can now make regular deliveries to his district.
Otherwise, Democrats will be left with a field of lesser names. Kim McMillan, the former House majority leader, is one. State Sens. Roy Herron and Andy Berke have both privately expressed interest in running if Davis doesn't.
"It's hard to talk a substantial candidate into getting into a race just to help people on down the ticket," a Democratic source says. "It's true they've got better candidates looking at it than we do, but it's early."
Still, it looks like Democrats will once again run with a weak candidate at the top of their ticket—the very mistake that led to their current minority status. They never learn.
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