Mrs. Gore weighs Senate run in Tennessee

Decision likely soon

impetus is unclear

March 16, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Tipper Gore, wife of former Vice President Al Gore, is seriously considering a run for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee, several well-placed Gore sources confirmed yesterday.

She is expected to make a final decision within the next few days, said a Gore associate, who, like the others, spoke on the condition that he not be identified. Gore broke off a trip to California and returned to Nashville to discuss the race with family members and potential supporters.

One immediate obstacle is the prospect of a Democratic primary fight against a veteran congressman from her husband's old House district around Nashville. It was uncertain last night that the Gores would be able to clear the field for her to run unopposed for the nomination.

Also unclear is precisely where the impetus for her candidacy comes from. News that she was thinking about running, which surfaced Thursday, surprised Tennessee Democratic leaders. It came less than a week after Republican Sen. Fred Thompson unexpectedly announced that he would not seek re-election.

The former vice president, who has been inching toward another presidential try in 2004, has been house-hunting in Nashville this week. The Gores were reported to be considering a $2 million house in a heavily Republican neighborhood.

After his embarrassing loss to George W. Bush in Tennessee in 2000, which cost him the presidency, Gore said he wanted to "mend fences" with home-state voters. His wife's flirtation with a Senate bid could help in that rebuilding effort even if she doesn't get into the race.

"Floating her name puts the Gore name in bigger prominence in Tennessee. It brings it back home," says Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist.

But if she runs, it could complicate a comeback try by her husband, say some Gore associates, who believe it would be difficult for the family to manage two campaigns at once. Also, if she were to run and lose, it could undermine her husband's chances nationally.

The former vice president said March 8 when Thompson announced that he wasn't running that he wasn't interested in returning to the Senate. Al Gore acknowledged at a fund-raiser in Washington the other day that it wouldn't be easy for the Democrats to win back his old seat this year.

The reason: Tennessee is very much a Republican-leaning state. The last time a Democratic candidate won a race for governor or senator was in 1990.

Tipper Gore hasn't run for office and until now maintained that she never considered becoming a candidate. But polls taken during the Clinton administration showed that she was more personally popular than either of the Clintons or her husband.

She came to public attention during the 1980s, when she spoke out against obscene lyrics in popular music. Today, she is an advocate on issues including women's rights, homelessness, the family and, especially, mental health.

Tipper Gore has acknowledged that she was treated for clinical depression after her son, Albert, was struck by a car outside Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in 1989, when he was 6, and was nearly killed.

Former aides and others said she isn't likely to enter the Senate race if she would face serious primary opposition.

Rep. Bob Clement, a seven-term Democratic congressman from Nashville, has been expected to announce his candidacy Monday. A Clement aide insisted that Gore's plans would have no effect on his announcement, but Clement and the Gores are expected to discuss the race over the weekend.

Party officials in Washington had been working to avoid a primary fight in Tennessee even before they learned of Gore's interest in the race.

A campaign by the former vice president's wife would invite comparisons to Hillary Rodham Clinton's successful run for a New York Senate seat in 2000. Clinton told reporters yesterday that she had spoken with Gore and had urged her to run.

"I'll be in her corner" if she decides to become a candidate, the senator said.

Former Gov. Lamar Alexander announced earlier this week that he is a candidate for the Republican nomination, as is Rep. Ed Bryant of Western Tennessee.

Whit Ayres, an Alexander adviser, described Mrs. Gore as "Hillary without the liberal state" and noted that "her husband lost the state when he was at the top of the Democratic ticket."

Ayres, the campaign's pollster, said her possible candidacy "strikes me as a desperate Hail Mary pass" by the Democrats. But he conceded that it is possible for a Democratic candidate to win statewide and that he has "no clue what kind of candidate she's going to be."

In the 2000 election, Bush and the Republicans successfully portrayed Al Gore as out of step culturally and socially with the conservative voters of Tennessee. His wife, who has championed liberal social causes, could be vulnerable to similar attacks.

Last month, at a gay rights dinner in Cary, N.C., she denounced the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward homosexuals as ineffective.

"I have a better solution. ... Let's rip it up," she told the North Carolina Human Rights campaign. She also said: "We cannot rest until Congress adopts federal hate crime legislation that includes sexual orientation. Period."

Gore, 53, was raised in Alexandria, Va., in the Washington suburbs. She and her husband live in the house where she grew up. During the early 1970s, when the Gores lived in Tennessee before his election to Congress, she worked as a part-time newspaper photographer.

With their four children grown, she is free to devote herself full time to pursuits outside the home, friends say.

Gore is expected to make her plans known by the end of next week. The filing deadline for candidates to enter the Senate contest is April 4.

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