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Will D.C.'s lack of glamour bring Fred home?

By Liz Murray Garrigan

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  Among Tennessee political insiders, the notion of a Fred Thompson gubernatorial candidacy has been cycling the mill for several months now.

But the rumor was hurled into the national consciousness in a recent U.S. News & World Report's "Washington Whispers" column. "Should Vice President Al Gore flub the biggest political test of his life, he may get a chance at his old job," the Thompson item begins in the weekly news magazine. "Word is sweeping Tennessee that Sen. Fred Thompson, the state's senior senator, who took the 'Gore seat' in the Senate, is getting tired of Washington and may bail to run for governor in 2002."

The magazine goes on to cite reasons for Thompson's possible Washington abandonment--"boredom" and "frustration that he's not taken as seriously as he thinks a former Watergate investigator and Hollywood star should be."

Tennessee Democratic Party officials are bending over backwards to keep from acknowledging the political strength of Thompson, who has garnered more votes statewide than any other politician--even presidential candidates--in the history of Tennessee elections. (In 1996, 1,086,295 voters cast their ballots for Thompson, more than politicians ranging from Ronald Reagan to Al Gore to Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon ever received here.)

"There are a lot of reasons why Thompson's group might be floating that bubble," says Greg Wanderman, executive director of the Tennessee Democratic Party. First, Wanderman says, Thompson may be trying to move other GOP primary contenders such as U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary and Chattanooga businessman Bob Corker out of the way early. But such reasoning fails to recognize the widely held view from inside both major political parties that Thompson could enter the race whenever he wants and still be the favored candidate.

Continuing the spin, Wanderman theorizes that Tennessee Republicans are fearful of a possible challenge next year to U.S. Sen. Bill Frist and that they are therefore giving Democratic Senate aspirant, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford, some reason to believe there might be an open seat, which could lead him to hold off a Senate bid until 2002.

Wanderman dismisses Thompson's historic 1996 voting numbers, saying running for federal office statewide is different than running for governor. And he hints that, somehow, the Democratic Party or its eventual nominee would try to exploit Thompson's status as a bachelor who's had an active dating life. "He kind of ran on that Hollywood charm," but a governor's race would be more intense, Wanderman says. "Fred has a lot of baggage, a lot of skeletons in his closet. He's had a colorful personal life and those issues were not made light of during the federal race, and I think there would be a lot more to take a look at."

For the record, Thompson's office issues a dramatic "no comment" about the U.S. News piece. Asked whether the 57-year-old senator is still planning to run for reelection in 2002, a Thompson spokesman delivers another "no comment."

But acquaintances say a Tennessee gubernatorial bid is possible, especially if a Democrat is elected president next year. That would make Washington an even more unattractive place to Thompson.

While "Washington Whispers" speculates that an unsuccessful Gore presidential campaign could lead the vice president back to the U.S. Senate, others find the idea of Thompson and Gore running against one another for governor a more scintillating proposition.

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