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POLITICS : High Stakes for Both Parties in 3 Key Tennessee Races

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tennessee, the state where Andrew Jackson hammered together the Democratic Party, is shaping up as a microcosm of the 1994 national elections.

Here, a new governor and two U.S. senators will be elected. Democrats control all three offices, and Republicans are smelling blood. As evidence of the importance attached to the contests, both parties may spend more money per voter than in any other state.

SENATE: Fred Dalton Thompson, the Watergate minority counsel turned Hollywood actor, won the Republican primary to face Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper in the contest for Vice President Al Gore’s unexpired term.

Cooper, a 40-year-old former Rhodes scholar and son of a former governor, achieved national recognition by being one of the first Democrats to challenge President Clinton’s health care plan, devising his own alternative proposal, which he called “Clinton-light.”

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Both candidates have already spent a little more than $1 million each, with Thompson facing token opposition and Cooper unopposed in the primaries.

In the other Senate race, Sen. Jim Sasser, the Budget Committee chairman who wants to become Senate majority leader next year, is seeking a fourth term. He already has a $3-million war chest.

He is opposed by Republican Bill Frist, a Nashville surgeon who made a fortune in the health care business. Frist raised $2.2 million for his fiercely contested primary--more than $1 million from his own pocket.

GOVERNOR: Republican Rep. Don Sundquist will face Nashville’s Democratic Mayor Phil Bredesen, another wealthy health care businessman. Bredesen spent more than $10 per vote in his primary race--$3 million for 270,000 votes.

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The most recent Mason-Dixon poll shows Sundquist slightly ahead of Bredesen.

Loss of Gore’s old seat and the governorship to GOP control clearly would bode ill for a Clinton-Gore reelection campaign in 1996. A loss by Sasser would be seen as a catastrophe by Democrats, who are fighting to retain control of the Senate this year.

The Republican Senate candidates are already pushing their races as referendums on the Clinton Administration. The Democrats are steering clear of the President, who won only 47% of the vote here despite having Gore on the ticket.

Sasser, a liberal, has been seen mainly in Reaganesque commercials touting family values. Cooper said after the primary: “I represent Tennessee--nobody else.”

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The Thompson-Cooper race is the closest so far. Thompson trailed Cooper by 11 percentage points in a poll in May, mainly because the Democratic congressman surpassed him in name recognition. But a more recent Frank Luntz poll shows the gap has narrowed to eight points.

Presumably, the celebrity of Thompson for his prominent roles in such films as “Die Hard II” and in movies starring Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery and Harrison Ford will help.

Both Thompson and Cooper are wealthy--Cooper is one of the richest men in the House--but the congressman has already raised more than $3 million, about twice what Thompson has.

The way Cooper is raising money has raised some eyebrows. After he proclaimed that he would take no contributions from political action committees, it was reported that the health care industry was “bundling” contributions to him (having employees send money as individuals) by the hundreds of thousands of dollars and making him their No. 1 one recipient of donations in the House.

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“Cooper’s made health care a money tree,” a Thompson spokesman said.

Republicans also are hopeful about their chances in contests for three open congressional seats in the state--two are now held by Democrats, and one by a Republican. All three districts could change hands, giving the Republicans an extra seat.


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