Then They Came South 

The presidential campaign arrives in Tennessee

The presidential campaign arrives in Tennessee

Whether stumbling blindly or flying high, the surviving Democratic presidential campaigns set foot on Tennessee soil this week. The state’s primary is Feb. 10—Tuesday of next week—the same day voters head to the polls in Virginia. With each passing day, it appears Tennessee will matter, if only to put a bullet in another straggler or give a boost to another survivor.

Conventional wisdom had been that if John Kerry had swept the table in this week’s seven nominating events—Missouri, Oklahoma, Delaware, South Carolina, Arizona, North Dakota and New Mexico—he would have put the finishing touches on the nominating process. The fact is, he did well, but failed to seal the deal.

Kerry won many of the states, the biggest of his victories in Missouri, where the largest number of delegates was at stake. But in South Carolina, which is stocked with critical Democratic constituencies like blacks, rural Southerners and the working class, the freshly scrubbed John Edwards and his message of care and concern for the less fortunate proved triumphant. (In Oklahoma, at press time, the race between Edwards and Wesley Clark was too close to call.

What Edwards’ victory may effectively have done is propel him into the viable alternative candidate mode—as of this moment, he has now become the Kerry alternative. Secondly, he may have edged ahead of Wesley Clark, the other Southerner in the race who had pinned his hopes on lining up endorsements in states close to his neighboring Arkansas that might be more sympathetic to his message.

Meanwhile, as the votes poured in Tuesday, it was anybody’s guess what Howard Dean and the rest of the gang were up to. All rational people—and many of these people are not rational—would have to conclude that even though Dean is busy digging trenches in Washington and Michigan and hoping for a last stand there, he has entered the political almanac as little more than a footnote. Joe Lieberman, Al Sharpton and all the rest are history too.

Meanwhile, the prospect of an Edwards versus Kerry contest as the nominating process moves forward has a certain wonderful air about it. The son of a mill worker born in humble circumstances in the South, Edwards contrasts nicely against Kerry’s affluent upbringing and Washington alliances. On top of that, Edwards’ warm sense of inclusiveness and his inimitably smooth delivery are probably drawing extra looks from Democrats who until this point had been unaligned in the nominating contest.

Meanwhile, much is expected in Tennessee over the next week. What follows is a look at the various campaigns, where they have been, who’s supporting them, what is expected in the new few days and how it’s shaping up.

At its essence, Tennessee is looking this way: Clark is trying to hang on, but a motivated Edwards is going to throw everything he’s got into stopping a stronger Kerry.

Wesley Clark and his establishment friends

Somewhere from across the Mississippi River not too many months ago—from Little Rock, to be precise—the calls to Tennessee’s Democratic establishment came forth: Wesley Clark wants you. Many of the calls were from old Bill Clinton associates, people with whom the Tennessee Democrats were well acquainted. There was Clark campaign chairman Eli Segal, who in 1992 had made the Clinton campaign train run on time, and Mickey Kantor, who was a top Clinton administration official.

Ultimately, many of the Tennessee Democrats fell in line. Johnny Hayes, a formidable Democratic fundraiser long associated with Al Gore, is now the campaign’s national vice chairman. Byron Trauger, considered Gov. Phil Bredesen’s closest political ally and a former law school pal of Hillary Clinton, endorsed Clark. So did Stuart Brunson, Bredesen’s gubernatorial campaign director who had formerly worked in the Gore-Lieberman campaign.

Another piece in the puzzle was Fletcher Rowley Chao Inc., a local political consulting firm hired to help the campaign. In early fall, Bill Fletcher had jumped in his car and made the drive to Little Rock to confer with campaign officials and pitch his services. Today, the firm handles—generally speaking—press relations and some strategic planning in Tennessee and elsewhere.

Compared to all the other presidential campaigns combined, the Clark effort in Tennessee has dominated. Countless officeholders have made public endorsements—130, as of a couple of weeks ago—ranging from over a dozen state legislators to three Metro Council members and many others elsewhere. The Clark campaign has 18 staffers working in the state and has spent $1 million on advertising (mostly touchy-feely, biographical stuff that has been running continuously since Dec. 30). Clark himself has made three visits here since October, touching down in even small towns like McMinnville. On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, he will spend a day and a half traveling the state by bus, making stops in such bustling urban centers as Paris, Lebanon and Manchester. His Nashville appearance is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday on the TSU campus.

Obviously, Clark’s strategic gamble has been that his military bonafides and Southern roots would play well to a Tennessee audience. In the early going, it obviously did. The equal gamble has been on the part of so many leading Democrats in the state who figured that by jumping on board a fellow Southerner’s candidacy they would have more influence with the campaign—and by extension, his presidential administration—than had they gone with someone else. Tennessee usually has its favorite Southern candidate every four years, and in this cycle, the politicos have gone with Clark.

Rent your garage to a Kerry staffer now

John Kerry has had little presence in Tennessee. Until now. “It’s kind of like a tidal wave,” acknowledges Kathy Roeder, Kerry’s Tennessee press secretary. Roeder just arrived here Saturday. Before that, she was living in New Hampshire, where she was Dick Gephardt’s press secretary, and then found herself unemployed.

At the beginning of this week, some 15 staffers arrived at the Kerry campaign headquarters in the Falls School Building on Eighth Avenue. Some were then dispatched to other newly opened offices around the state. Roeder says there could be twice as many staffers here by week’s end.

Obviously, Kerry is trying to build momentum in Tennessee to capitalize on his recent successes elsewhere. His most top-shelf endorsement from a Tennessean has come from Memphis Congressman Harold Ford, of the politically influential Ford family. But a huge endorsement was set for this week, that being former Gov. Ned McWherter. Several of his close political allies were expected to follow suit. The top Kerry staffer in the state is Stephen Lindsey, who has worked in Democratic campaigns in Tennessee and is the son of influential Democratic fundraiser Cathy Thomas. At one point months ago, Lindsey had some help here in the form of a field director, but like dozens of other Kerry staffers from around the country, she was dispatched to Iowa to help in his victory effort there.

Other than Ford, Nashville attorney Bob Tuke is probably Kerry’s other biggest ally in Tennessee. The likable Tuke first met Kerry in May 2002, in Nantucket, on the beach, where the two found themselves drinking beer, eating clams and talking politics. Tuke, a former Marine, had served in Vietnam. Kerry, as is now well known, had as well. There was more talk, more exchanging of ideas. “I became a real fan,” Tuke says.

Fast forward to March 2003, and Tuke was asked if he would join the campaign. Despite suffering from general political exhaustion—he was active in Bob Clement’s unsuccessful Senate bid in 2002—he jumped on board as Kerry’s Tennessee finance coordinator.

In those early days, there was a fundraiser at the home of Nashville music producer Don Cook, and Tuke was able to get Kerry an audience in a Nashville airport meeting room with such influential Democrats as Jane Eskind and Charles Bone. (That visit was the one time Kerry came to Tennessee.)

The most visceral connection between Tuke and Kerry is Vietnam. “I told him that as a Vietnam Veteran he has made me feel better than I have in 32 years,” Tuke says. As to Kerry’s syrupy-sounding Boston accent, Tuke predicts Kerry will play here regardless. “First of all, he’s a hunter. Always has been. He also was a prosecutor, and he’s put people away for life. Obviously, he’s a combat veteran and a hero. He’ll sell here.” Kerry also has some distant relatives in the state who live in Pulaski and Jackson, which is better than nothing.

“This is going to be a clash,” Tuke says, referring to the general election in which Kerry is likely to compete. “I’m here to tell you we’re going after these sons of bitches.”

Lawyers love that John Edwards sunshine

At least John Edwards can honestly claim a Tennessee connection. Soon after he was married, and not long after he graduated from law school at the University of North Carolina, he and his wife moved here. From 1978 to 1981, he practiced at Dearborn and Ewing, the same law firm that, coincidentally, former presidential candidate Lamar Alexander once worked for. His wife, meanwhile, practiced for Harwell, Barr, Martin & Sloan. The Edwards’ late son, Wade, was born at Baptist Hospital in 1979.

From those days, Edwards made a number of lasting connections with a predominantly lawyer-ish crowd in Nashville. Many in those circles have actively raised money for him and campaigned for him out of state. Bass, Berry & Sims attorney George Masterson, who went to law school with Edwards, hit the Iowa caucuses for him; Tom Lee, at Waller Lansden, has been actively raising money and helping local staff with issues; Mary Parker and Randy Kinnard—well known plaintiff’s lawyers—are supporting him; Jerry Martin, who practices with Barrett, Johnston & Parsley, has also signed on.

“Everywhere he goes, he rockets,” Lee observes. “Wherever he spends time, he doubles and triples his support.”

Edwards first visited Tennessee in his presidential quest two years ago, when he hosted a quiet fundraiser for his political action committee. Then, in February 2003, he came to Tennessee as an official candidate and attended a fundraiser at Parker’s home in Brentwood. It was only the first of many trips—he has visited Tennessee seven times, more than any other candidate.

Campaign spokesman Colin Van Ostern says plans call for Edwards to be present in Tennessee every day from Wednesday of this week until the primary on Tuesday. He will be in Nashville on Thursday, at 3 p.m., at Tennessee State University. And on Sunday night, he will attend a fundraiser at the East Nashville restaurant Chapel Bistro.

The campaign headquarters on Clifton Avenue near the well-known Swett’s Restaurant is one of six in the state—offices have been opened recently in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Tri-Cities, Jackson and Memphis. Television commercials, Van Ostern says, are scheduled to begin Wednesday. Also, the campaign says it will release Wednesday a list of 200 Tennesseans—some major, some very minor—who are backing him. Of course, some relatively big-name officeholders have already endorsed Edwards. His campaign chairman is former Congressman Bob Clement. Noteworthy endorsements emanating from the state legislature include Roy Herron, Rob Briley and Kim McMillan.

Hooking up with Howard Dean

Befitting Howard Dean’s grassroots, Internet-based, decentralized campaign style, the campaign here has had its own unique modus operandi. Paul Ambrosius is quite familiar with it.

An attorney at Trauger, Ney and Tuke (where, as mentioned, Byron Trauger is supporting Clark, Bob Tuke is supporting Kerry and Paul Ney, for what it’s worth, is intransigently Republican), Ambrosius went to a “meet-up” last spring. A meet-up, it bears mentioning, is a gathering of people that is essentially arranged by meetup.com, a Web site. In Nashville, Ambrosius met his fellow Dean supporters at Cafe Coco, the coffee shop near Elliston Place. Only eight to 10 people were there. But within no time, the regular once-a-month meet-ups in Nashville exploded. In November and December, Ambrosius says, attendance was in the 80-range. Then at Cafe 123 in January, some 120 Deaniacs showed up. (Another meet-up is to be held on Wednesday evening, of this week, at 7 p.m. at J.J.’s Market on Broadway, next to Noshville.)

“It’s all volunteer here,” says Ambrosius, whose political credentials include having spent time on Phil Bredesen’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002. “We have volunteers in probably over 30 counties across the state. We’ve knocked on thousands of doors in Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton, Rutherford and Sullivan counties and elsewhere.”

The self-organized nature of the Dean operation has probably made it difficult for the campaign to break into the more organized ranks of the Democratic Party in Tennessee. And the grassroots style had to have hampered its ability to get out a consistent message. Nonetheless, at least the campaign got some voters involved who otherwise would have stayed at home.

All of this is not to say the campaign had no worthwhile support. In its early days, a successful fundraiser in Nashville—at which Dean was present—was stocked with local progressives. It also bears mentioning Dean himself was able to secure the nomination of the state’s most important Democrat, Al Gore.

As to actual Vermont connections Dean has with Tennessee, there are few, although for people who keep up with Tennessee media the name Kevin Ellis may ring a bell. A Metro reporter for The Tennessean who lived in East Nashville in the early '80s, Ellis is now a lobbyist living in Vermont. And according to staffers for Mayor Bill Purcell, Ellis, who used to live near the mayor, has called to secure a Dean endorsement from Purcell.

The mayor, however, has no plans to endorse.

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