The White House has been quietly advising Lamar Alexander in his quest to defeat Rep. Ed Bryant in the Republican primary for the Tennessee Senate seat currently held by Fred Thompson. But Alexander isn't necessarily listening.
Given Tennessee's increasingly conservative leanings, White House senior adviser Karl Rove has been telling Alexander to run more to the right, even if it makes him indistinguishable from the more conservative Bryant. Why? "Name recognition," says an RNC political advance staffer. "Even if Bryant is the true conservative, Alexander is a former governor. Everyone knows him. He just has to make it through the primary and we're okay for the general."
The primary is now a bigger question mark than it might have been, thanks to Bryant's strong run. The upstart conservative refused to step aside, even turning down Rove's personal entreaties. "He's running on principle, namely that Alexander isn't a true conservative, isn't right for Tennessee," says a Bryant staffer in Washington. "When you have that, it makes it easier to run and lose, especially if you know you at least helped push the winner further to the right."
Alexander has been running slightly more to the right at home in the Smoky Mountain state, but elsewhere he's happy to be a lot more moderate.
A May 22 Alexander fundraiser in Washington is a case in point. Invitations recently went out for the event, which will be held in the home of liberal, pro-choice Republican Julie Finley. According to the RNC staffer, the White House advised against the Finley fundraiser, saying it would work with the RNC to find another Washington site for an Alexander fundraiser. Alexander's campaign turned the offer down. "Finley is big at the RNC. If the party had a problem with her, why give her a seat at the table? She brings a voice to a wing of the party that doesn't have many," says an Alexander adviser based in Washington. "Her money and her friends' money is as good as anyone's."
Apparently Finley's help is needed. Bryant is pulling in all the conservative money in the state, and many of Alexander's instate supporters are suffering from "Lamar fatigue" from his previous presidential runs and not donating as much as in the past.
Rove and the White House have to be wondering what kind of nightmare they are in. Just six months ago, it appeared the Republicans were on their way to seriously challenging for a takeover of the Senate, a hold in the House, and a sweep in statehouses in states like California and Texas. But across the country, moderate to liberal White House-handpicked Republicans are getting knocked around by more conservative candidates. Tennessee is but the latest in a potentially devastating trend.
"If Bryant beats Alexander, then it's a bit of a tougher race than Republicans wanted," says a well-known Republican pollster. "It's one more state to worry about. Instead of spending more and knocking off a really weak Democrat like Paul Wellstone in Minnesota, they're going to use some of that money just to hold Tennessee."
To be sure, such worries may be premature. When everything is said and done, Alexander is still expected to win the primary.
Since Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno can't get the president she worked and covered for to campaign for her, she's turned to someone who plays a president on TV. "West Wing" chief executive Martin Sheen has agreed to appear for Reno at several fundraisers and rallies in Florida over the next few weeks. Sheen has built a cottage industry out of playing president to Democratic and left-wing groups around the country. And unlike the former President Clinton, Sheen doesn't require that all of his expenses be paid for. But is the role he plays on TV merging into real life?
"He [Sheen] really seems to think on some level he is a president," says a Reno staffer in Miami. "He won't step to the microphone with 'Hail to the Chief' playing in the background like we wanted to do, but he does seem to relish the moment."
Although Sheen, in press interviews, has criticized Republicans as zealously as any Democrat on Capitol Hill, he has also modestly dismissed the notion that he views himself as presidential timber. But then, how many actors are introduced to adoring crowds as "the people's president," as Sheen will be in Florida?
"It's sad that the relationship between Ms. Reno and Mr. Clinton has become so strained. We could really use his help, and Reno has always credited the president for bringing her to this point in her life," says the volunteer. "Perhaps when he sees what Sheen can do for us, he'll want to hop on our bandwagon."
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