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Tennessee Blues: How Gore Lost His Home State

By Garrett M. Graff, Special to The Crimson

NASHVILLE--If Al Gore '69 fails to win the presidency, he need look no further than his neighbors in Tennessee to wonder what might have been.

While Texas Gov. George W. Bush won his home state with 59 percent of the vote, Vice President Gore lost Tennessee--and its 11 badly needed electoral votes--by nearly 80,000 votes.

From the appearance of the downtown center in Nashville last Tuesday, it would have been difficult to conceive that Tennessee was not a Gore stronghold and an Electoral College lock.

Nashville was transformed into "Gore Central" on election day. On almost every street corner, supporters waved blue Gore/Lieberman 2000 signs and nearly everyone wore Gore buttons and stickers.

The streets and parking lots around the War Memorial Plaza, the epicenter of the city, were filled with people selling everything from buttons and bumper stickers to bears and Gore baseball caps. One of the most popular signs read, "Read my lips, No New Texans."

Two blocks from the Plaza, Anthony E. Pellicone, a stockbroker and Bush supporter by day, hawked blue beanie babies emblazoned with Gore 2000 and a photo of the vice president. Not to miss a market, his partner in the venture spent the week in Austin, Tex., selling red bears that read Bush 2000.

Regardless of his own political views, Pellicone said he was enjoying the buzz of campaign fever.

"It's exciting," he said. "You're in where the whole world is watching."

But just like Pellicone's true candidate leanings were masked, it seems that the boisterous enthusiasm for Gore in downtown Nashville was merely a political mirage.

And so the man who was catapulted to Washington as the son of a state political icon, worked for five years at The Tennessean, the largest state paper, and was born in Carthage--was rudely rejected by his state at the ballot box. In this absurdly close election, it has made all the difference.

How the Tide Turned

The story of how the state's favorite son lost is the tale of a state that has evolved from a Democratic stronghold into a groundswell of conservative support.

The Democratic Party, America's oldest political party, was founded in Nashville by Andrew Jackson 180 years ago and it has a long history of staying true to its roots.

Gore was wildly successful in his early career in Tennessee politics, winning five terms in the U.S. House and two terms in the U.S. Senate. He even won the 1988 Democratic presidential primary in Tennessee--part of his failed first bid for the presidency.

But since Gore left the Senate in 1992, residents say the state has taken a sharp turn to the right--a turn that cost him in last Tuesday's election.

Both of Tennessee's current U.S. senators and five of its nine congressional representatives are Republicans. Don Sundquist, the state's Republican governor, won a second term in 1998 with a record 69 percent of the vote.

This conservative switch led Texas Gov. George W. Bush to make multiple visits to the state, campaigning hard and trying to embarrass Gore in his own backyard. Both candidates aired a deluge of television ads and made campaign appearances in the state during the final hours before the election.

"Clinton-fatigue" also played a role in the election, locals say.

Gore supporter Beverly L. Barnes says many of the state's conservative voters united after Clinton won Tennessee in 1996 and turned out in massive numbers in last week's election.

"They wanted to make sure it didn't go Democratic again," Barnes says.

"Tennessee lost out tonight by not electing Gore," supporter Joyce McDaniel said on election night. "We had our chance and we blew it."

Tennessee has long held a love-hate relationship with its biggest political family.

Al Gore Sr., Gore's father, lost his reelection bid to the U.S. Senate in 1970 largely because the state's residents considered him too liberal.

Many say his lack of support for the Vietnam War led to his defeat, and some detractors of the younger Gore say his decision to enlist for the Vietnam War was a political move to help his father's ailing Senate campaign.

Since the younger Gore's hard-fought 1976 Congressional campaign and his meteoric rise up the House and Senate ladder, it seemed like the political ambitions of the elder Gore--the White House--would finally be culminated through the political legacy of his son.

But the elder Gore's political life was ended by his failure to remain in touch with the political currents of his home state.

While the political life of his son currently hinges on the Florida recount, the precedent of losing one's home state does not bode well for the Gore campaign.

Only two presidents have been elected without winning their own home state.

Eighty-four years ago, President Woodrow Wilson took the White House, but lost his home state of New Jersey.

And the other?

Mexican War proponent--and Tennessean--James K. Polk, whose former residence lies only 100 yards from the War Memorial Plaza, the center of Gore's aborted Tuesday night victory celebration. Now, Gore can only hope history smiles twice on Tennessee.

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