THE looming race to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Al Gore Jr. is evolving into one of the nation's most intriguing political matchups of the year, pitting a respected congressional intellectual against a successful Hollywood actor in a contest that pollster Del Ali says could ``become the tightest Senate race in the country.''
US Rep. Jim Cooper (D) and attorney/actor Fred Thompson are poised to win their parties' nominations Thursday in Tennessee's primary election. Congressman Cooper is unopposed in the Democratic race, and Mr. Thompson faces nominal opposition in the Republican primary against Memphis salesman John Baker. The final winner will fill the two years remaining in Mr. Gore's Senate term.
The Republican Party, which sees a chance to retake the Senate from the Democrats this November, views Tennessee as a golden opportunity to embarrass the vice president by reclaiming his old Senate seat. Both the state's Senate seats and the governorship are on the ballot in Tennessee, and all three are held by Democrats. Since Gore's ascension to the vice presidency, his Senate chair has been warmed by longtime state administrator Harlan Mathews, a Democrat appointed by Gov. Ned McWherter (D) to be a caretaker.
Once the primary is over, the expected Cooper-Thompson race to the Nov. 8 general election promises to grab its share of the national spotlight.
The great health-care debate of 1994 has propelled Cooper from relative obscurity to standing toe-to-toe against the nation's first couple in the charge for reform. The originator of an approach he dubs ``Clinton Lite,'' Cooper has enjoyed sudden national prominence and made hundreds of appearances across the country to promote ``managed competition'' in health care. His package, embraced by business and most health-care groups, would form networks of doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies to compete with one another for low-cost services.
Thompson cut his teeth as a prot of former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker (R) during the Watergate hearings and later won several high-profile court cases. But a movie career that began with the Sissy Spacek film ``Marie,'' in which Thompson played himself as a lawyer, has expanded to include 17 films, such as ``Days of Thunder'' and ``The Hunt for Red October.''
Beyond a shared vocation - law - these men have very little in common. Cooper, the son of a former Tennessee governor, was educated at Harvard and Oxford and has expressed his scorn for lobbyists by refusing to accept political action committee money.
Thompson, the son of a used car dealer, grew up in near poverty, worked nights in a bicycle factory, and went on to graduate from Memphis State University and Vanderbilt Law School. Although quick to lean on his ``country lawyer'' label, he is in fact a big-stakes international attorney whose client list has included the Teamsters' pension fund.
The Mason-Dixon poll, a media-backed survey released last week, shows Cooper leading Thompson 45 percent to 33 percent (with a 3.5 percent margin of error) going into the primary.
Cooper and Thompson began taking swipes at each other as early as June, when they took turns speaking to the Tennessee Bar Association in Memphis. ``I live in Shelbyville, Tenn.; not in Hollywood, Calif.,'' Cooper said, emphasizing his Southern roots and homestyle values. Thompson responded that his is a working-class background of graveyard shifts and college loans while Cooper's is a privileged life of private schools and political connections. ``He's spent his entire adult life in Congress, while I've been out in the private sector. I think he thinks Washington is the real world,'' Thompson said.
Thompson has pounded a theme of term limits and congressional salary cuts, returning Congress from a professional bureaucracy to the part-time citizen legislature envisioned by the nation's founders. ``Until we change the motivation of lawmakers away from career-building,'' Thompson says, ``we're never going to address the United States' long-term major problems of the federal debt, our deficit and downward growth pattern.''
Cooper, a six-term congressman who became the House's youngest member in 1982 at age 28, supports campaign-finance reform and other measures to make sure incumbents don't have an undue advantage. He says his years in Washington are an asset in addressing complex national and international issues.
Cooper calls himself a conservative Democrat with bipartisan ideas and appeal. ``I've supported Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton when I thought they were right, and I've opposed them when I thought they were wrong,'' he says. Health-care reform is a prime example. Cooper criticized the Clinton plan even at its most popular point and is still negotiating a bipartisan package while each party plods ahead with their own versions.
Thompson depicts Cooper as an opportunist who has used the health-care issue as a political ploy for national exposure and to collect some $500,000 in contributions from the health-care industry.
Cooper responds: ``No one's more shocked than me at all the attention I've received from the health-care debate. I'm still just a junior congressman from Shelbyville, Tenn., who just so happens to have a powerful idea that is still very much in the forefront of the debate.''