Senatorial surprise may be brewing in Tennessee



NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- On paper, Rep. Jim Cooper could not be better positioned to win a Senate seat here next November.

Those who have followed his career say he always has been something of an overachiever. He has the right kind of background and record: The son of a former governor, he zipped through the University of North Carolina in three years, studied as a Rhodes scholar and went to Harvard Law School.

He was elected to Congress in 1982 and established a reputation as a centrist Democrat but one willing to take some risks by, for example, opposing the flag-burning amendment. His last two times out, he won with 64 percent and 67 percent of the vote.

So it was no surprise when Gov. Ned McWherter endorsed him for the seat vacated by Vice President Al Gore and occupied for the past year by a caretaker appointee, Harlan Mathews.

And, icing the cake, Cooper has moved onto the national stage by proposing an alternative to President Clinton's health-care reform plan that was described as moderate and that attracted bipartisan support.

But this political campaigns still has some questions to be answered. One is the potential of Cooper's Republican opponent, Nashville lawyer and movie actor Fred Thompson. Another is the value of Cooper's prominence on the health-care issue.

A recent poll of Tennessee voters found Cooper leading Thompson 36 percent to 17 percent but with 47 percent undecided, a number reflecting the facts that only two in three voters can identify Cooper and that only one in three know who Thompson is. What is most intriguing, however, is the finding that Cooper's recognition factor among voters in his state has risen only 3 percent since last July, when he has been enjoying so much attention from his sponsorship of the health-care alternative.

What this suggests is that voters simply don't pay as much attention to what is happening in Washington as Washington likes to think they do.

Then there is Thompson, a hulking 6-foot, 5-inch lawyer who is probably much better known than the poll suggests. Although he first gained some national prominence as Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee 20 years ago, Thompson's best political credential may be the fact he has played prominent supporting roles in 18 movies over the past decade.

He believes, probably correctly, that there are a lot of voters out there who know his face but not his name. Thompson got into the movie dodge playing himself in a film about a woman he represented in a notorious Tennessee scandal that ultimately ended with a governor, Ray Blanton, going to jail.

Since then, Thompson has combined his legal career with the movies, always essentially playing himself as an authoritarian and forceful military officer or director of the FBI or CIA, most recently as White House chief of staff in the Clint Eastwood thriller about the Secret Service, "In the Line of Fire."

If you ask why Thompson is running for the Senate, he replies with the practiced drollery of the country boy of humble roots: "The pay prospects, the quality of life, the opportunity to hang around with such agreeable fellows."

But Thompson is a sophisticated player. Talking politics in his law office here, he can say accurately, "I've been around it all my life." As a protege of Howard Baker, he fits the description of other Republicans who have succeeded in Tennessee: conservative on fiscal issues, moderate on social questions. He brings the added skill of the veteran litigator who can speak articulately in perfect syntax while forming his thoughts.

His career combining the law and movies, he says, "has freed me up to do it for the right reasons." He can afford to run on a promise to serve only two terms and as an advocate of the kind of congressional reforms the electorate has been demanding. Too many career politicians, he says, find themselves prisoners of their need for approval ratings on every issue. "You have to RTC acquiesce if you want to stay," he says.

Jim Cooper is clearly the favorite here. But voters don't always follow the scenarios written by the politicians.

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