Senator's change of plans bad for GOP

Tenn.'s Thompson won't seek re-election

March 09, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican who came to the Senate in 1995 with the aura of a movie actor and the look of a presidential contender, announced yesterday that he has changed his mind about seeking re-election this fall because he doesn't "have the heart to serve another six-year term."

Friends say the recent death of his daughter, coming after a long series of frustrations and disappointments in his Senate service, convinced the 59-year-old Thompson that he has "other priorities I have to attend to."

"I hope that my friends and supporters who may be disappointed will understand and will believe that I will have given them eight good years," Thompson said in a statement issued from his Nashville campaign office.

His departure is bad news for the GOP drive to regain Senate control because it means the party, facing three other retirements this year, will have to defend a fourth seat that might otherwise have been safe. Thompson told colleagues last summer that he was thinking of leaving, but after the Sept. 11 attacks GOP leaders were able to persuade him to stay.

"Obviously, this opens up a good opportunity for us," said Jim Jordan, of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which is hoping to boost the Democratic strength from 51 to 49, which includes Vermont independent James Jeffords voting with Democrats.

Al Gore, the Democrat who held Thompson's seat before he was elected vice president in 1992, moved quickly yesterday to squelch speculation that he might seek a return to the Senate.

"We have some outstanding Democratic leaders in Tennessee who I hope will be candidates," Gore said in a statement released shortly after Thompson's announcement. "I will work hard to elect one of them to the Senate, but I will not be a candidate for the Senate myself."

Four Democratic House members in Tennessee have expressed interest in the seat, including Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Memphis, who delivered the keynote speech at his party's 2000 national convention. He praised Thompson yesterday as "a great senator" and declared he was off to test the waters for a potential candidacy.

Tennessee Republicans appear to be turning to former governor, federal education secretary and presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, who was ready to jump into the Senate race last fall when it first appeared that Thompson would withdraw.

Alexander is expected to announce his Senate bid Monday. Republican Rep. Ed Bryant of Memphis has also expressed an interest in the GOP nomination. Candidates must file by April 4.

Senate hopefuls in both parties began yesterday to re-examine plans abandoned last September when Thompson, in the aftermath of World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, ended months of speculation about his probable departure with the announcement that he intended to stay.

"Now is clearly not the time to leave," he said.

Thompson began rethinking that decision in January, shortly after his daughter, Elizabeth "Betsy" Thompson Panici, died at age 38 of what his office described as "a severe brain injury resulting from cardiac arrest."

"He suffered a terrible tragedy, and because of that he started to review his life," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, who is perhaps Thompson's closest friend in the Senate. "I think he meant it when he said it took the heart right out of him."

The sudden loss brought back to the surface disappointments about his Senate life that Thompson had put aside in the fall. It has been a career that never lived up to his expectations, or those that others had for him.

Nearly 6-foot-6, with a booming voice and commanding presence, Thompson was more recognizable than most senators when he arrived on Capitol Hill in 1995 after winning an election for the final two years of Gore's term. His successful stint in Hollywood as a character actor had resulted in several memorable performances in hit movies, including The Hunt for Red October and In the Line of Fire.

Thompson also brought with him a substantive background as a lawyer, including service during the 1970s as Tennessee Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.'s chief counsel in the Watergate hearings.

His fellow Republicans were so taken with their new Hollywood-honed freshman senator that they tapped him to deliver the GOP response to President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address in 1995. Talk of a White House bid of his own someday started to circulate.

But Thompson's lead role in the Senate investigation of Clinton's 1996 fund-raising activities was unimpressive because his Senate Government Affairs Committee failed to turn up enough evidence for a full-fledged political scandal. To many, it seemed little more than a partisan exercise in a year when he was running for a full six-year Senate term.

Thompson also was frustrated with the slow pace and Byzantine politics of the Senate, where almost nothing can be done without bipartisan consensus - an increasingly rare commodity.

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