Only 47 months till election day GOP field forming: Republicans eye presidential contenders; watch Fred Thompson.


IN POLITICS, it's never too early. On the day after the Nov. 5 election, former Tenn. Gov. Lamar Alexander let it be known he was ready for a second try four years down the road. He has plenty of contenders to worry about -- Colin Powell, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, George Bush the Younger, Christie Whitman, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Mike Leavitt, John Engler, Tommy Thompson, Trent Lott, John McCain to name a few.

But Mr. Alexander's main worry is another Tennessean, Sen. Fred Thompson, the biggest GOP name out of Hollywood since a fellow named Ronald Reagan. He could split home-state backing. The likely Democratic nominee: Al Gore of (naturally) Tennessee.

Mr. Thompson as chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee figures to loom large in GOP investigations of illegal or questionable Democratic fund-raising during the 1996 election. If he hits pay dirt, his theatrical (and prosecutorial) abilities could give him the name recognition politicians pant for.

It was still another Tennessean (and one-time presidential aspirant), former Sen. Howard Baker, who gave Mr. Thompson his first big break as chief Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. Then Governor Alexander subsequently named him as special counsel to investigate clemency-selling by a former governor, who went to jail. Next, he so dramatically defended the chairman of the parole board that it was made into a movie starring Fred Thompson. Fifteen other roles followed.

While Senator Thompson has been gearing up for hearings on foreign contributions to the Clinton campaign, he has indicated little interest in probing anew into the Whitewater matters under investigation by Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel newly targeted by Democratic political operative James Carville. If campaign finance reform becomes as big an issue as it should, his choice of subject matter might reflect a finely tuned political touch.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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