Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2002/ 11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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A partisan struggle
to help George W. | MEMPHIS, Tenn. The race to retain the seat of the retiring Fred Thompson, crucial in the struggle for control of the United States Senate, ought to make George W. Bush feel pretty good, at least about himself.

Lamar Alexander, the Republican running this time with neither the exclamation point (Lamar!) nor the plain plaid shirt of his failed presidential campaigns, and his Democratic opponent, Rep. Bob Clement, are locked in a contest that looks to be a race to see who gets to be firstest to help George W. the mostest.

As important as the race is in a state that leans Republican (Al Gore could not even carry his home state in 2000) but not by much, so far it's falling a caliber or two short of the fire and brimstone in Montana, New Jersey, Missouri or even in nearby Arkansas. Mr. Bush has campaigned here for Mr. Alexander and he may be back before Nov. 5, if only for a pit stop en route to somewhere else.

Mr. Alexander, a former governor, yearns to be a rubber stamp, promising to support George W. "99 percent of the time." Mr. Clement, the son of a famous former governor, was so pleased when the president invited him to ride to Nashville the other day on Air Force One that he put out a press release before the big Boeing 747 even lifted off from Andrews Air Force Base. Mr. Alexander then put out a press release noting that this was a breach of protocol, or at least of good manners. And besides, he pointed out, the president didn't even stroll back to schmooze with his guests, as he usually does.

Mr. Alexander is the favorite, and though some people here detect an ever-so-small closing of the gap between the two men in recent days, he continues to hold a double-digit lead in the public-opinion polls. The margin has not been reflected in the sometimes tart exchanges between the candidates.

When Mr. Clement, in a debate Sunday night, took note of Mr. Alexander's prosperity since he abandoned politics after his presidential campaigns, exploiting the contacts he made in those races, Mr. Alexander cried that he was the victim of "a smear campaign."

Said Mr. Clement, speaking of himself in the third-person grand so beloved of pols: "The issue is using political connections and political contacts to make money for his own checkbook. If Bob Clement is elected, he will fight to protect your checkbook."

Shot back Mr. Alexander: "Mr. Clement made a million dollars being in the private sector only three years. I would never have been able to make that much." And then he reached into the barnyard for what a former president of the University of Tennessee, such as Mr. Alexander, would certainly call a metaphor.

Squabbling over personal finances, he said, "is like wrestling a pig in the mud. You both get dirty, and only the pig likes it."

Retorted Mr. Clement: "I'd rather wrestle a pig than live high on the hog while thousands of people are losing their jobs."

George W. might also take pleasure and reassurance in the way that attempts to exploit corporate scandal as something to blame on the Republicans has failed to gain traction. Mr. Clement chides Mr. Alexander, a secretary of education in the first Bush administration, for drawing a $60,000 salary as a member of the board of a company that earlier won renewal of a questionable $102 million contract to supply Internet services to Tennessee public schools. Several law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, are investigating how the contract was awarded, who got what, when, and why. Mr. Clement has demanded that Mr. Alexander return the $60,000, just in case. But he has been careful not to say he thinks there was anything "illegal or immoral" about Mr. Alexander's dealings. Just fattening.

Mr. Alexander returns similar fire, having charged in an earlier debate that Mr. Clement fibbed when he said he had not served 30 years ago on the board of the bank of the Butcher brothers, Jack and C.H., infamous in Tennessee politics, who were convicted of bank fraud. Mr. Clement, he said, even got a $40,000 loan from a Butcher bank. The accusation, only popcorn cotton as such scandals go, nevertheless has the additional utility of reminding old-timers that Mr. Clement's father, who was governor 50 years ago, was a sometime ally of the Butcher brothers. The past, as William Faulkner famously wrote, is not dead in the South because it is not even past.

But the candidates are talking mostly about the economy in the here and now and the war clouds gathering over Iraq. Both men support the president strongly, with the ritual caveat that he ought to bring in the United Nations if he can (and only if he wants to).

Mr. Clement, who has served in the House since 1979, reminds voters at every opportunity that he voted to commit troops to the war in '91 and to give this President Bush the authority to go after Saddam again. Mr. Alexander agrees, and both men further agree that the world is dangerous, the future is uncertain, and talking is better than fighting. But if fighting comes they're for that, too. They're scheduled to debate one more time, next Sunday here in Memphis, but absent an earthquake this one looks safe for the president's party.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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