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VOL. 123 | NO. 14 | Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Clinton Campaign Sees Support in Tennessee

By Andy Meek

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LEND ME AN EAR: Then-president Bill Clinton whispers to former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter during a visit to Nashville in 1996. Today, McWherter is the co-chair of the Tennessee steering committee for another Clinton waging a presidential bid: former first lady Hillary Clinton. -- Ap Photo/Greg Gibson

An associate of Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Sidney Chism received a phone call from Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign last week. The purpose of the call was to enlist help in finding office space in Memphis for the campaign.

Chism - the former Teamster's leader and veteran political power broker - is a member of the New York senator's Tennessee steering committee. The Clinton camp boasts other prominent statewide and Memphis-area supporters, including Chism's longtime friend, Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.

Also among those supporters is arguably one of the most influential and enthusiastic boosters the former first lady has picked up in Tennessee thus far: the state's 77-year-old former governor, Ned McWherter.

Tennessee heavyweight

McWherter, who lives in Dresden, Tenn., and remains a heavyweight in state Democratic circles, is the co-chair of Clinton's Tennessee steering committee. He's long been a close friend, sounding board and prominent backer of both Clintons, and his support of Bill Clinton dates to when both men were state governors and later when Clinton was elected president in 1992.

One of the most visible examples of the extent of that relationship dates to the mid-1990s and McWherter's push to create the TennCare program, the progress of which was keenly monitored by the White House. Now, the two-term former governor is throwing his support behind another Clinton making a run at the nation's highest office.

"McWherter's support is a real plus for her, because he was known as a conservative Democrat, and he appeals to moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, and moderate and liberal Democrats," Chism said. "So I think his support is key."

'Proven talent'

Speaking to The Daily News by phone from his Dresden home recently, McWherter listed some of the reasons he is supporting Clinton this time around and what he thinks she'll encounter in the Volunteer State.

"I just think there's some proven talent there," he said. "For example, and here's something that's important to Memphis - she's just been part of pushing a bill through the U.S. Senate that would give every National Guard person and their families a benefit under the federal TriCare program, just like veterans get. That means a lot to these kids and their families."

Wooing independent voters in the state will be critical to winning Tennessee in the general election, and McWherter said he thinks Clinton can do that on a number of issues, including the economy.

"When you look hard and deep, you've got to give them credit," McWherter said. "The economy was in terrible shape when they went into office. Some people will say, 'Well, it was turning around.' I don't know whether it was or not, but look at the mess we're in now."

Tennessee: Political proving ground

Speaking to reporters earlier this month, former Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Randy Button called Tennessee a bellwether for Clinton's campaign.

"If your message sells in Tennessee, it'll sell everywhere else," Button said.

There are few examples that more clearly define the relationship McWherter enjoys with the Clintons than the governor's push to create TennCare, the state's expanded version of Medicaid and one of the most visible elements of the former governor's legacy.

TennCare's creation was helped along by support from the Clinton White House, McWherter said, and it came about around the same time Hillary Clinton was trying to shepherd the administration's own health care reform package through Congress, which did not succeed.

A New York Times story from that period noted that the Clinton administration's health care bill was 1,342 pages long, compared to the one-and-a-half page proposal in Tennessee that led to TennCare. "The alternative was that we thought we could use Tennessee as a laboratory of experiment, and I got - the Clinton administration gave me the first waiver on Medicaid to use those funds and intermingle them with the Tennessee funds," McWherter said. "And we covered basically all Tennesseans who had no health insurance."

Based on Tennessee's political geography, the direction in which independent voters break for the 2008 election will determine who carries the state, McWherter said.

"Tennessee is changing a great deal. In our state, you have to reach out. You've got to get the independents," he said. "Tennessee is about one-third Republican, one-third Democratic, and one-third independent.

"East Tennessee, it'll be a tough campaign up there - always has been for Democrats. I was fortunate I enjoyed a lot of support from East Tennessee. But I think independent voters will definitely be interested in the things Hillary is interested in."

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