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Issue a Big Factor in Tenn. Senate Race

As the fight over judicial nominees continues to percolate in Washington, D.C., the issue is also being hotly debated in the race to replace Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) in Tennessee.

Former Rep. Ed Bryant, one of four Republican candidates running in the open seat, said Tuesday his support for the nuclear, or constitutional, option is the focal point of his entire campaign and insists the message is resonating with potential GOP primary voters.

“It is clearly something I am making an issue in the race,” said Bryant. “This is probably the most significant issue out there right now.”

Former Rep. Van Hilleary (R), however, argued that Bryant has changed his tune on the nuclear option in the past month.

“Ed has been going around saying we should go slower on this,” said Hilleary, who favors a change in the Senate rules. Hilleary added that the issue’s growing importance to Republican primary voters is “why [Bryant] has backed up on it a bit.”

Regardless of whether Bryant has changed his position, the effort among Tennessee Republicans to align themselves with their party’s push to bar filibusters against judicial nominees in the Senate reveals that the issue is quickly becoming one of the early touchstones in the 2006 campaign, both in the Volunteer State and across the country.

In a column that ran on April 1 in the Memphis Flyer, an alternative newsweekly, Bryant was quoted saying: “If there’s a second President Clinton then we want to make sure that we look very closely at her judges to make sure they believe in the Constitution. Don’t be thinking that we’re going to be solving this very quickly if we go nuclear.”

Bryant insisted Tuesday that he was talking about how important it would be to have his experience on the Senate Judiciary Committee in future Congresses, not about his support — or lack thereof — for the nuclear option.

“I am urging [Frist] to move on that and, if anything, move faster,” said Bryant.

The other two Republican candidates in the Senate primary — state Rep. Beth Harwell and Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker — both support the nuclear option.

While Republicans in Tennessee argue over who is more fervent in their support over the proposed rule change, Democrats across the country also hope to make political gains based on their opposition.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) held a conference call Monday charging that Senate Republicans’ commitment to a rule change is hurting some of their most vulnerable incumbents.

As evidence, DSCC Communications Director Phil Singer released a document showing that the re-election numbers of Sens. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Jim Talent (Mo.), and Conrad Burns (Mont.) have fallen in recent independent polls, a decline he attributed to their hard-line stance on the nuclear option.

“The issue is backfiring on Republicans because the public sees a GOP talking to the far right base and not to them,” Singer said.

Not so, retorted National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Nick, who pointed to comments by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) that seemed to indicate he was open to a compromise on judges.

“If it played in their favor they wouldn’t be backpedaling at the degree they currently are,” Nick said. “Democrats have understood that obstruction was rejected at the ballot box last November and obstruction will be rejected again.”

Republicans picked up four Senate seats in 2004 bringing them to a 55-seat majority, their largest since 1998.

The Tennessee seat is one of four where a Senator is retiring at the end of the 109th Congress but the only one playing host to an active Republican primary.

In Minnesota, Rep. Mark Kennedy is unopposed for the GOP nomination; Republicans are seeking to unite behind Gov. Jim Douglas and Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in the open-seat races in Vermont and Maryland, respectively.

The Tennessee GOP primary features four candidates with distinct geographic bases; three of the four have previously run and lost bids for statewide office.

Hilleary said that the desire of Tennesseans to see “strict constructionist judges” appointed to the federal bench was the primary reason that Bush carried the Volunteer State and won re-election to a second term in 2004.

“It is an extremely important issue, no question about that,” he added.

Harwell said the judges issue has cropped up several times on the campaign trail.

“People think it is only fair” for judges to get an up or down vote, she said.

She predicted that it would not be an issue throughout the campaign, however, because “the Senate is going to resolve it.”

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