Washington Prowler

Tennessee at Risk

GOP divisions come to the fore. Meanwhile, House Democrats figure out how to run with and against Bush.

By 4.16.02

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GOP TROTTERS
In what may shape up to be an another embarrassing primary race for the White House and the Republican National Committee, Rep. Ed Bryant, a Republican from Tennessee, again has refused to step aside in the Senate primary race for what will be the open seat currently held by Sen. Fred Thompson, who is retiring. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander is senior White House adviser Karl Rove's horse in this race, and according to several White House sources, has met at least three times with Bryant in the past month to persuade the conservative Republican that he should back out and give Alexander an open field to run on.

"Bryant has stood his ground," says one White House political staffer. "He's listened to Rove, he's been polite, but he wants to make a race of this primary. It's not like the White House has a lot to offer him right now as a consolation prize."

According to an RNC campaign consultant, Rove has told Bryant that the Tennessee seat is critical to Republican plans to take back the Senate, and that President Bush would prefer an experienced statewide candidate such as Alexander over Bryant. "He's told Bryant that there may be another Senate seat open in 2006, that [Sen.] Bill Frist is considering not running and that that could be Bryant's seat," says the RNC source. "But that's asking Bryant to be patient for four more years for something that may never happen."

Frist has never discussed retirement, and he garnered more than 60 percent of the vote in winning re-election in 2000. His seat appears safe for many years to come.

"We didn't need this Bryant situation," says the White House political staffer. "Bryant could be a serious challenger to Alexander, make Lamar work and spend money. That isn't what we needed in a state that should have been a cakewalk."

And money appears to be biggest complicating factor. President Bush was recently in Tennessee on what Rove and others had hoped would be the first of a several big fundraising swings for Alexander. But because of Bryant's presence in the primary race, and because of what happened in California, where its handpicked man Richard Riordan lost badly to neophyte Bill Simon, Jr., the White House is hesitant to raise money for one Republican candidate and not the other.

"What happens if Bryant does surprise us and wins the primary?" asks an RNC fundraiser. "It's kind of awkward for Bush to campaign for him in the fall after raising hundreds of thousands against him several months earlier. We have to stay out of this one for the time being and hope Alexander can raise the cash on his own without a lot of help from the White House."

FEELING THE CROSS-PRESSURE
New York Rep. Nita Lowey, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is telling her Democratic House colleagues they are going to win back the House. Her colleagues aren't necessarily buying it. After all, there isn't a Democratic political consultant in Washington telling them that. "It's been all doom and gloom," says a House Democratic leadership staffer. "Whatever she's drinking I want some."

It might not be what she's drinking, but it's definitely what she's been taking in: a poll she commissioned as DCCC chairman says that so-called "cross-pressured voters" (those who support President Bush's war on terror but who are unhappy with his domestic policies) favor Democrats 2 to 1 over Republicans. "It's the first bit of good news we've seen in months," says a DCCC staffer. "It gives our candidates a roadmap."

According to several House and Senate Democratic sources, the poll's insights were utilized by major players who spoke at a Florida Democratic meeting over the weekend. Potential presidential candidates Al Gore, Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Chris Dodd hammered Bush on domestic issues, and pretty much let him off the hook internationally beyond a few potshots on the Israel/Palestine situation.

"That meeting got a lot of press play down in Florida, so we'll poll over the next week or so to see how independents picked up on what we were saying and what they think about it," says a pollster who does work for the Democratic National Committee. "We'll see if Lowey's poll is accurate or just a mirage."

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