Thompson won't return to Congress

Staff and wire reports

   WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee reversed himself Friday and said he will not seek re-election this November, setting aside a brief but promising political career only weeks after the death of his daughter.
   The decision by the one-time top aide to Republicans in the Senate Watergate investigation complicates his party's efforts to regain a Senate majority this fall. But 2000 Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Al Gore, who once held Thompson's seat, quickly ruled out another run for it.
   "I simply do not have the heart for another six-year term," Thompson, 59, said in a written statement.
   "Serving in the Senate has been a tremendous honor, but I feel that I have other priorities that I need to attend to. I hope that my friends and supporters who may be disappointed will understand and will believe that I will have given them eight good years.
   "In the meantime, for the rest of the this year, I will be working closely with the President and my colleagues in the best interest of Tennessee and our country."
   Though Thompson's statement did not mention it, colleagues said the Jan. 20 death of his daughter figured heavily in his decision. Elizabeth Thompson Panici, 38, died following a heart attack.
   Thompson, familiar to millions of movie fans for his roles in numerous films, had looked hard at announcing last year that he would retire from the Senate after only one full term. But he announced two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that he would seek re-election.
   "Seeing all that happen and all those people looking for ways to contribute when I had one right here before me, in my lap, so to speak, it became obvious," Thompson said then. "Now is clearly not the time to leave."
   Three veteran Senate Republicans -- Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Phil Gramm of Texas and Jesse Helms of North Carolina -- also have announced that this is their last year in office.
   "I hope that my friends and supporters who may be disappointed will understand and will believe that I will have given them eight good years," Thompson said.
   Though Tennessee has sent increasing numbers of Republicans to Congress in recent years, Democrats rejoiced at the opportunity Thompson's decision may have given them.
   "This is an unexpected gift from the Republicans, this is their fourth retirement and one more state where they'll be playing defense," said Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
   Gore -- who stepped down from that Senate seat to become vice president in 1993 -- said he would not be a candidate.
   "We have some outstanding Democratic leaders in Tennessee who I hope will be candidates," Gore said in a statement released by his office. "I will work hard to elect one of them to the Senate, but I will not be a candidate for the Senate myself."
   All four Democratic House members in Tennessee, including Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Memphis, have all expressed interest in seeking the Democratic nomination for Thompson's seat, as has Jim Hall, who chaired the National Transportation Safety Board in the Clinton administration. The other Democratic congressmen who had been interested were Bart Gordon, Bob Clement and John Tanner.
   Republicans say there have been some discussions within the party with Lamar Alexander, a former governor, former education secretary and former presidential candidate, about whether he would be available to run for the seat if it came open. Filing remains open in Tennessee until April 4.
   "Former Gov. Lamar Alexander is the Republican Party's strongest candidate to retain the seat," said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant.
   The tall, deep-voiced Thompson first came to public attention as the top lawyer for then-Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., during the Watergate hearings of 1973.
   He became a successful lobbyist in Washington whose clients included the Teamsters union. He was also a movie actor, playing an admiral in "The Hunt for Red October" and the White House chief of staff in "In the Line of Fire" starring Clint Eastwood.
   In 1994, Thompson was the early underdog to succeed the retiring Democratic Sen. Harlan Mathews, who was appointed temporarily to replace Gore.
   Thompson portrayed himself as a Washington outsider, driving around his state in a pickup truck and often wearing a flannel shirt. He easily defeated Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper in a landslide year for Republicans, and then romped to re-election in 1996.