By Joey Garrison, The Tennessean

A year removed from an embarrassing nomination disaster, and one year before they'll need to field candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate, Tennessee Democrats don't have much of a short list of viable contenders for either office.

They may not have a list at all.

With two Democratic lawmakers passing on runs for governor in recent weeks, finding someone to embrace the underdog role in 2014 against Republican incumbents has become a struggle -- even as Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander face their own political tests.

No member of the state's crop of Democratic big-city mayors, widely seen as the party's future, is expected to make either race. And it's not clear where the money would come from to finance a campaign in either contest, let alone both.

A year ago, the Tennessee Democratic Party chose to quickly disavow U.S. Senate nominee Mark Clayton after party officials discovered the victorious political unknown had a trail of views not typical of your average major-party candidate, much less a traditional Democrat. Hopes had rested on actress and activist Park Overall winning the nomination, but her run on the TV sitcom "Empty Nest" didn't carry much weight at the polls.

Lacking contenders this cycle, some Democrats fear a repeat of a similar scenario. Clayton, who sued the party last week for encouraging voters to write in someone else last year, hasn't ruled out either 2014 contest, though the party almost certainly wouldn't certify his nomination this time.

Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Roy Herron suggested it's too early to panic, pointing to Kentucky, where Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is polling favorably against U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after announcing her candidacy in July.

Herron said he's talked to potential candidates for both contests who are in the process of weighing whether to run, though he declined to reveal any names. Herron, who indicated even a spring entry wouldn't be too late, seemed to quash the possibility of himself running for governor, a rumor that had picked up steam.

"I don't think you can be a party chair and a candidate for statewide office at the same time," he said as he discussed a climate he believes is ripe for his party.

"The struggles of the current administration in Nashville and the extremism of the radicals and reactionaries, both in Nashville and in Washington, enhance the opportunities for a challenger in both races each and every day."

Yet in recent weeks, two Democrats, House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and state Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson, have crossed their names out of contention for the party's nomination. Finney, the state Senate's second-highest ranking Democrat, is believed to be mulling a run for mayor of Jackson instead.

The latest name to surface is Sara Kyle, who retired from the Tennessee Regulatory Authority in March after a 19-year stint as a director. Kyle, the wife of state Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, told The Tennessean last week that she's thinking about running for governor but couldn't give a time frame on when she would decide.

Other possible contenders to take on Haslam come up only sporadically, and never with confirmation from the subjects of speculation themselves.

Receiving even less talk is the prospect of a legitimate opponent to take on Alexander in the Senate. So far the only person to jump in to that contest is Larry Crim of Nashville, a perennial candidate who finished behind Clayton in the Senate primary last year.

Hope lies in mayors

Herron and other Democrats take the long view, however, reflexively citing the state's seven largest cities where, despite Republican gains across the state, the mayors are Democrats -- including Knoxville and Chattanooga, where Republicans held both seats previously.

In an email to party supporters last week rallying the troops to the party's annual Jackson Day dinner, Herron highlighted this crew. "Our Democratic mayors personify the greatest qualities of our Party," he wrote.

The group of mayors includes newly elected Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, Kim McMillan of Clarksville, Tommy Bragg of Murfreesboro and AC Wharton of Memphis, along with two names Democrats routinely tout for higher office: Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a favorite among young progressives, and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

But while some of these mayors are considered the party's bench for future statewide office, no one is willing to jump in just yet.

Berke, a former state senator elected mayor in March, is barely more than 100 days into his term and "focused on getting a budget passed," he said in a statement.

Dean, who dipped into personal financial resources during his first run for mayor, and could perhaps do the same in a run for governor or Senate, has carried out a pro-business platform that reminds many of Bredesen. But he isn't looking at 2014, either.

Instead, most observers see Dean and Berke as potential gubernatorial contenders in 2018, when the seat most likely becomes open because of term limits, or for a Senate seat whenever the same occurs.

Mayor's office spokeswoman Bonna Johnson said Dean "loves being the mayor of Nashville and thinks of nothing else but completing his term.

"Beyond that, he has made no decisions."

Given the conservative trends in the state, Democrats would be long shots in 2014. Still, some see vulnerabilities with the incumbents.

Alexander could be softened up by a primary challenge from a still-to-be-determined tea party candidate. Haslam is battling through the most turbulent period of his time in office as he seeks to stay clear of an alleged rebate scheme at Pilot Flying J, the company his family founded.

Democrats believe there could be an opening if the crisis escalates.

"I think there's a great opportunity for a Democrat to look at this race and see a dramatically different playing field six months from now or 12 months from now than there is today," Democratic fundraiser Bill Freeman said, though he said he's not interested in the job.

Republicans are taking notice of the dearth of Democratic contenders.

"The Democrats have abandoned the values of most Tennesseans," Tennessee Republican Chairman Chris Devaney said. "After 150 years of Democrat control, people were tired of big government, higher taxes and a failed education system."

But even during better times for today's beleaguered Tennessee Democrats, finding candidates with the kind of money to run against a Republican incumbent wasn't easy. The last time the party needed a gubernatorial challenger to a Republican incumbent, in 1998, it nominated attorney and political gadfly John Jay Hooker, who lost soundly to Republican Gov. Don Sundquist and never had a realistic chance.

No incumbent senator has been knocked off in Tennessee since Bill Frist defeated Jim Sasser in 1994. The last Tennessee governor who didn't serve two terms was Democrat Ray Blanton.

At 83 years old, Hooker said he might run as an independent, a Democrat or even in the Republican primary for governor in 2014 if no candidate supports him on his pet issue, opposing a constitutional amendment going before the voters that would allow the governor and lawmakers to choose appeals court judges.

"I'm too old and tired on paper, but I'm still young at heart," Hooker said.

With the prospect of another Clayton candidacy looming, Democrats might embrace a Hooker bid.

"Anything is possible," Clayton said when asked whether he will run next year. "We're working to do what's best for the Democratic Party in Tennessee and make sure that Bill Haslam and Lamar Alexander are not re-elected."

If Clayton won while suing the party for disowning him last time, well, that might be the one thing that could cause Democrats more embarrassment than he inflicted on them in 2012.

(Copyright 2008 Gannett Co. Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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