Frist Watch

Former senator will decide in November who will run for governor

Call it a Frist watch.

Sometime after the November election, former Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist will decide whether he is running for governor of Tennessee. There are several prominent Republicans waiting anxiously for him to decide what they will be doing for the next decade. Their futures hang on Frist's decision.

Frist demonstrated in 1994 that he had the financial resources to win statewide office even as an unknown heart surgeon from Nashville. Now with two terms in the U.S Senate he is such a prohibitive favorite he will likely clear the Republican field if he announces.

But talking with people who know Frist, they say he is honestly conflicted about his choices. He could run for governor, and possibly for president, and continue his second career as a politician. But he is also drawn to making a difference in his chosen profession of medicine. He has spent a good deal of time in Africa fighting disease and treating the sick. He is drawn to the Al Gore model—leave politics and take on a huge project that has a significant impact on the world. (Whether you believe in what Gore is doing or not, you must admit he has had a significant impact on world affairs with his Nobel-winning efforts on global warming.)

Should Frist decide to try and stop the spread of AIDS instead of tangling with the Tennessee Legislature, the Republicans would have a major primary scramble.

Congressman Zach Wamp, from Chattanooga, has his sights fixed firmly on the governor's chair. During his current re-election campaign he has a lot of billboards. Not coincidentally, they are up and down Interstate 24 and Interstate 40, a wasteful expense for his certain re-election to Congress, but certainly helpful in increasing his name recognition before 2010.

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is quietly watching the unfolding events. It is ironic that Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, who began his quest for governor the day he was elected, has let his political ambitions and constant striving derail any chance he might have had at the job. But Haslam, who has quietly gone about his job without a full-throated political organization around him, is well-positioned for a run for governor.

He and his brother Jimmy and their friends played a major role in electing U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. They learned statewide fund-raising for political races at their father's knee.

The problem for Haslam and Wamp is that they will split the East Tennessee vote and could lose to Middle-West Tennessee Congressman Marsha Blackburn.

Blackburn's congressional district runs from the heavily Republican "collar counties" in suburban Nashville all the way to Shelby County. There are more Republican votes there than can be achieved in a two-candidate field in Republican East Tennessee.

Blackburn made her name as a state senator from Brentwood who opposed the income tax and was a darling of talk radio. But her goal has always been the governor's office and she has been working toward it for years. Her only handicap would be her inability to raise the kind of money Wamp or Haslam could accrue. The Republican establishment does not care for her at all.

Also complicating the picture is Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, from the Tri-Cities. Should he run, it would further split the East Tennessee vote and also help Blackburn.

Frist or one of the other Republican candidates would be well positioned to win the general. The Democrats do not have a strong field from which to choose. Most of their congressmen have shown little interest, except for Congressman Lincoln Davis. The Blue Dog Davis would be a good candidate, but he may be too conservative for the Democratic base. But he was state chair of Congressman Harold Ford Jr.'s senate race and he met some big Democratic contributors. If he inherits mailing lists and contributor lists, it would give him a major boost.

Davis would need to attract conservative independents and Republicans against Frist but he would be woefully under-funded.

But the race will start shortly after the November election. Frist holds the starting gun.