Mrs. Gore's decision a wise one

March 20, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Hardly had Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee pulled his hat out of the ring for fall re-election the other day when former Tennessee governor and two-time presidential candidate Lamar Alexander tossed his in for the GOP nomination. Mr. Thompson said he'd had enough after nearly eight years. As for Mr. Alexander, he didn't have to be asked twice.

Shortly afterward, Tennessee and Washington were abuzz over word from Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, the former vice president and U.S. senator, that she was "considering" doing the same for the Democratic nomination. After thinking about it, and apparently hearing concerns from Tennessee Democrats that a lively primary fight might cost their party a chance to pick up a critical seat in its battle to retain control of the Senate, she decided against it.

This little scenario encapsulates the interesting political phenomenon wherein some politicians, like Mr. Thompson, soon have a snoot full of public office and walk away voluntarily, while others, like Mr. Alexander, can't seem to get enough of the rough-and-tumble combat, win or lose.

Tipper Gore represents a third breed -- the celebrity prospect, whether through self-achievement as an entertainer or sports figure or as the spouse of a prominent and successful politician.

Already running for the Republican seat of retiring Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina is Elizabeth Dole, wife of 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole. And the Democrats have, of course, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Celebrity status often is a shortcut to office, but even with it Mrs. Clinton had to campaign relentlessly in a state in which she was assailed as a carpetbagger, learning the geography as she went. Mrs. Gore, who is a Tennessean by marriage only, would probably have had a similarly tough time in a state that is increasingly Republican, so much so that it voted against her (part-time) homeboy husband for president in 2000.

There was also the obvious question of how her candidacy, win or lose, would play on her husband's chances in a second shot at the presidency. In declining to run, she is preserving her strong image of the supportive helpmate who has other interests and isn't a politics freak.

Such names provide a touch of glamour to politics, but the hard work, long hours and drudgery involved in serving are at the same time underscored by the decision of 15 House members of both parties so far to retire in spite of the re-election rate in the House of about 98 percent. The task of having to campaign every two years and raise money constantly to do so is an obvious factor.

In the Senate, two other Republicans so far are joining Mr. Thompson and Mr. Helms in retirement -- 99-year-old Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Phil Gramm of Texas, giving the Democrats a chance -- on paper, anyway -- to strengthen their one-seat advantage in the Senate. But all four states with Republican Senate retirees are considered strong for the GOP and went for President Bush in 2000. No Senate Democrats are retiring.

In Tennessee, Mrs. Gore has quickly fallen in behind the candidacy of Rep. Bob Clement, son of a former governor, as has Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., who earlier considered running.

On the Republican side, Mr. Alexander faces a primary fight against Rep. Ed Bryant. A survey taken by pollster Whit Ayres for Mr. Alexander right after his leap into the race shows him beating Mr. Clement by 22 points in the general election and Mr. Bryant trailing Mr. Clement by two points. And after years in the political spotlight, Mr. Alexander has name identification in the state of 92 percent.

The Energizer Bunny of Tennessee politics, he has already hit the ground running, with a $200,000 buy of television time over five major Tennessee cities. Although he challenged George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential primaries and complained afterward that the Bush campaign's money steamroller forced him out of the race, Mr. Alexander is now campaigning as an all-out Bush man. His ad says he wants "to help the president win the war and strengthen our country," and that President Bush "is right about fixing schools, cutting taxes and creating jobs."

Considering the president's own sky-high numbers in the polls, Mr. Alexander knows what he's doing -- and maybe, for the same reason, so does Tipper Gore.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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