Shortly after 7 o’clock on election night, as early-voting returns crawled across the bottom of Nashville televisions, Richard Fulton gathered his intimates at his office. With him were his wife, Sandra, his oldest son, Dick, and his campaign consultant, Bill Fletcher.
Across the street, at the Westin Hermitage Hotel, Fulton’s supporters were about to begin their festivities. But already it was clear that this election would not resurrect the 72-year-old’s political career. As instantly as the first numbers popped up on the bottom of the TV screen, it was over.
Fulton’s longtime friend, George Barrett, began giving the predictable, curt interviews. Meanwhile, Fulton was considering his options. Given such a humiliating defeat, the fact that he technically made the runoff was little comfort. Fletcher explained to him that to campaign through the runoff would probably be futile, that Fulton had only a 1-in-10 chance of winning.
It was soon after that Fulton placed a phone call to the overwhelming victor, Bill Purcell, to tell him he was about to make a statement. Even then, it wasn’t clear to Purcell that Fulton was saying he wouldn’t go through with the runoff. And when Fulton made the public statement at the Hermitage, his intentions were still a little foggy.
“When you saw what he said, it was not, ‘I’m not pressing the runoff,’ ” Fletcher says. Like he had done so many times before during the course of the campaign, it was Fletcher who then took the media inquiries to clear up the issue.
As Purcell dips his toes in the Gulf this weekhe left Saturday for a family vacation at a supporter’s home near Destin, Fla.even his own backers are still wondering just exactly what happened to produce such a stunning victory.
Will Cheek, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a Purcell loyalist, says it was more than just a well-oiled campaign featuring the brilliantly conceived image of the desk in the front yard. Purcell succeeded in defining the contest as a generational choice, casting himself as the fresh, energetic alternative to the tired and largely discredited politics of the past. Even some of Fulton’s supporters weren’t enthusiastic.
“So many people in our campaign were really pretty hostile about Fulton,” Cheek says. “They were people whose parents were for Fulton, and the parents were for Fulton reluctantly.”
Developer Bobby Mathews, for example, was a Fulton contributor. Meanwhile, his son, Bert, was supporting Purcell. Also, public relations executive Tom Seigenthaler was a Fulton contributor. His daughter, Beth, wrote her check for Purcell.
Fletcher says, too, that many of the people who said they supported Fulton didn’t come through, after all. He says the Fulton campaign had identifiedthrough phone banking38 percent of those who voted early as being Fulton supporters. But when the numbers came in, Fulton got just over 20 percent of the early vote.
“People are so fond of Dick Fulton that they just weren’t willing to tell one of our volunteers on the phone that they weren’t going to vote for him,” Fletcher says in hindsight.
Fletcher also admits that the Fulton campaign simply had a meltdown. A negative television advertisement, characterizing Purcell as a criminal coddler, seemed to backfire on the former mayor. When media outlets began covering the spot as the campaign’s first mudslinging, Fulton didn’t like the critical attention. It was pulled five days into its run. After that, Fulton refused to go negative and decided against engaging Purcell.
“We got all of the downside of doing the spot and none of the upside,” Fletcher says. “I’ve never been involved in a campaign where the two top dogs didn’t engage. The election then became a social experiment: If you have a candidate on the move and don’t do anything, how far can he go? Well, we saw how far he could go.”
In addition to all that, when Fulton’s own polling began to show his vulnerabilities and Purcell’s rising support, the Mason-Dixon poll commissioned by The Tennessean was still showing Fulton in the lead. “The Tennessean poll coming when it did gave the mayor a confidence that he was doing better than he was,” Fletcher says.
Last, but not least, Fletcher says, Purcell deserves full credit for running an effective campaign house by house, street by street, small group by small group. “He deserved credit for a dogged, determined effort that was almost two years long.”
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