If the election were held today, there’s privately little doubt among practical politicians of both parties that ticket-splitting Tennesseans would elect Phil Bredesen as governor and Lamar Alexander as senator. At the same time, there’s no doubt whatsoever that each of the multimillionaire businessmen faces being fired upon with the most effective ammunition that experts outfitting an air war arsenal can devise.
The attacks will come from a pair of combative congressmen, each striking a more or less populist posturedespite occasionally incongruous ideology and bases of supportthat stresses such things as Tennessee roots, service in the military and an eagerness to play the corporate accountability card. Both Van Hilleary, the Republican underdog to Democrat Bredesen, and Bob Clement, the Democratic underdog to Republican Alexander, already have the air war experts under contract. There remain questions about how much ammunition they can affordand its effectiveness. There are also arguments about the defensive strategies of the richer and better known front-runners.
The closer race is for governor. Polls, both private and public, show Bredesen with a lead of 4 to 9 percentage points with enough undecided voters (there are some who see the contest as one involving the lesser of two evils) to turn things around. That leaves Hilleary, until recently an unknown to the general electorate outside of his 4th Congressional District, with no choice but to play offense. His chief offensive expert is Brad Todd, who cut his campaign teeth in Hilleary’s first effort at elective office, an unsuccessful effort to unseat Anna Belle Clement O’Brien (Bob Clement’s aunt) from her perch in the state Senate. He has since gone on to greater things, working for a Washington-based firm as a political guru to candidates throughout the land, but Hilleary is still his first loyalty.
That’s not to discount Hilleary’s campaign manager, Graham Shafer, whose previous claims to fame include trashing Alexander as an advisor to Steve Forbes. Like Alexander, Forbes lost to George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. But Todd will do the media. An example of his handiwork: In Hilleary’s 1996 campaign for reelection against Democrat and lawyer Mark Stewart, Todd found a case where Stewart, under court-ordered appointment, defended a guy accused of molesting a child. The ad featured an empty swing set and a narrator talking about how Stewart made his living defending criminals, even those who would do unspeakable things to children.
While Bredesen cannot be attacked on that front (unless Hilleary’s “oppo”opposition researchhas turned up something odd and unknown to other politicos), he proposed tax increases as mayor, has been sued by people unhappy with his business dealings and, arguably, came out on the short end in contracting with Bud Adams and the Dell computer folks. These provide fine exploitable opportunities for an air war expert who wants to make Bredesen look foolish, sleazy or both.
Bredesen, who echoes Alexander daily in calling for a “positive, issue-oriented campaign,” has an array of defenses against the anticipated attacksbasically ranging from “not so” to “the benefits outweighed the risk”and a number of opportunities for counteroffensive. Most of the latter relate to Hilleary’s congressional record, which arguably includes episodes of voting against most anything the moveable mass of the electorate considers good and decent. Democrats are fond of depicting him as a “Newt Gingrich clone.”
Bredesen, interestingly, is relying considerably on the counsel of Dave Cooley, his “senior strategist” and something of a counterpart to Todd in the Hilleary camp. This creates the famous “Roane County rivalry,” as political insiders call it, because both Todd and Cooley grew up in that East Tennessee county, sharing a multitude of family friendships and acquaintancesthough with little personal contact. Listen to political-junkie Democrats talk and they’ll tell you, “This is Cooley’s race to lose.” To avoid that possibility, Cooley is coaching Bredesen to stay cool in combat (not a big problem for a fellow nicknamed by Capitol Hill reporters as “Phil the Chill” during his gubernatorial campaign against Don Sundquist) while behaving in a folksy manner personally (a more difficult proposition) and presenting himself as the management man the state needs in contrast to never-had-a-real-job Hilleary. Bredesen’s campaign manager is Stuart Brunson, who ran Al Gore’s 2000 campaign in Tennessee and is a master of nuts-and-bolts organization.
Over in the Senate race, underdog Clement faces an even more daunting task than congressional colleague Hilleary in catching up to his multimillionaire opposition. Polling, both private and public, shows Clement at anywhere from 7 to 18 points behind Alexander. And the undecided count is smaller than in the governor’s race, with Alexander over 50 percent in some polling.
Michael Gant, a University of Tennessee political science professor who also heads UT’s Social Sciences Research Institute, says polling that his outfit undertook earlier this month on behalf of The Knoxville News-Sentinel indicates the race is “all but over” with Alexander the winner. Clement’s band, of course, disagree adamantly. The congressman puts his first television ads up this week, they note, while Alexander has been on the air since April as he fought Ed Bryant for the GOP nomination.
The lead Clement attack dog is Bill Fletcher, berated by the Alexander camp as something approaching evil incarnate when it comes to negative campaigning. For Tennesseans, his style was most recently on display in the thorough TV trashing of 4th District congressional candidate Fran Marcum on behalf of the Aug. 1 primary winner, Lincoln Davis. The signature ad transformed a rather innocuous billing dispute between Marcum’s company and a government agency into ballyhooed allegations of fraud and corruption.
Probable topics of Alexander torment include what Clement calls “sweetheart deals” that netted the Republican millions of dollars in business, the tax increases he pushed as governor and the occasional cavalier comments Alexander has uttered over the years. The Senate candidate has a stable full of operatives in his campaign, managed by Susie Alcorn, a veteran of multiple campaigns statewide, and chaired by David Kustoff, who ran President Bush’s state campaign in 2000. (Thus, Bredesen has Gore’s state manager of 2000, Alexander has Bush’s manager.)
For TV ads, Alexander relies on Mike Murphy, a nationally known politico who’s focused mostly on helping Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But he’s also a big-time Lamar lover from Alexander’s presidential campaign days. An Alexander counteroffensive, as with Bredesen, probably will involve a focus on congressional voting. He’s already made a theme of deeming Clement as unsupportive of Bush, who still enjoys high job approval ratings. He also accuses Clement of showing a liberal streak. Bush made a foray into Nashville Tuesday to bless Alexander. His father is making a similar journey to Memphis later in the week, and Dick Cheney is scheduling more trips to Tennessee. The Bush emphasis has been on Alexander, who national Republicans see as a lynchpin in their efforts to regain control of the Senate. Hilleary, to some Washington operatives, has seemed to hold the status of only an afterthoughtthough state Republican leaders insist he’ll get plenty of blessings from Bush, too.
Gore, of course, is supportive of the Democratic causes but is planning to remain more low-key, helping with fund raising and working on get-out-the-vote efforts.
Then there’s the Sundquist factor. The sitting governor remains so wildly unpopular in the polls that Democrats are trying their best to link him with Hilleary and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Alexander. So far, that’s mostly been limited to coy comments about Hilleary being another Republican congressman who wants to be governor. Then there’s the guy parading around in a Sundquist caricature masknicknamed “Titular Head”that Democrats have been sending to GOP functions.
Back when Sundquist was running for reelection, Alexander appeared in a commercial extolling his virtues. Democrats reportedly have a copy of that commercial and have toyed with the idea of recycling it into the current campaign. Similarly, there’s said to be a photo or two of Hilleary and Sundquist from back in the bygone days when they were happy together.
So don’t be too surprised if Sundquist is unwillingly dragged back into service for the Democratic cause.
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