By Paul C. Barton, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- As some on the right demand more proof of his conservatism, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander hasn't wasted opportunities this year to speak out against President Barack Obama and his policies.
"A complete failure of presidential leadership," Alexander said when the White House and Congress failed to find a way around budget sequestration at the end of February.
Why was there "no plan from the president" to reign in entitlement spending? he thundered a few weeks before at a Senate hearing on budget matters. "Why hasn't the president done that?"
And after Obama's State of the Union speech, Alexander said, "The president missed a golden opportunity to present a serious plan to deal with the most serious problem facing our country" -- how to preserve Medicare.
Meanwhile, mainstream Tennessee Republicans rally around him with endorsements for his 2014 re-election, and Alexander's campaign finance chairman vows he will have more than $3 million cash on hand by the end of June.
"I guess it's been the easiest calls I've ever made," Stephen Smith of Nashville said of the fundraising drive.
"We will raise whatever it takes. The sky's the limit."
Read between the lines of these developments, political analysts say, and you will see a candidate and party that has learned well the lessons of recent elections: Even long-time incumbents can lose primary fights, spelling disaster for Republicans in general elections.
In 2010, incumbent GOP Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah lost a state party fight for a nomination to another term^,@ and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska narrowly avoided the same fate. In 2012, incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lost a primary fight to Richard Mourdock, a tea party-backed candidate in Indiana.
National Republican officials still wince as they look back on blown opportunities to pick up Senate seats in 2012 because of candidates positioned too far to the right. Mourdock, even though he took out Lugar in the primary, lost in the general election, as did Todd Akin in Missouri.
"Watch your right flank" is the mantra governing Alexander's bid for a third U.S. Senate term from Tennessee, said Jennifer Duffy, analyst for The Cook Political Report.
So far, observers say, things seem to be shaping up nicely for Alexander in terms of not facing a serious primary challenger.
"We initially thought that was a possibility," said Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report. But now, he said, "We see nothing on the horizon in terms of serious problems for him."
One of the most seriously mentioned possibilities for primary challenger, Monty Lankford of Franklin, a 2008 congressional candidate, decided last month not to enter he race after all.
"It is also clear that after the failure to win control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012, in large part because of the selection of extreme candidates as their nominees, Republicans nationally will rally around Alexander should he attract primary opposition," said Vanderbilt University political analyst Bruce Oppenheimer.
But that's not to say all grumbling on the right has vanished.
"I think it's quite possible," Ben Cunningham of Nashville said of a conservative challenger to Alexander.
Cunningham, president of the Nashville Tea Party, said many Tennessee conservatives view Alexander as meeting their standards rhetorically but not when it comes to Senate floor votes.
"We believe his voting record should be vetted by a challenger," Cunningham said, adding that many tea party members outside the state feel similarly about the 72-year-old Maryville native.
Several Washington interest groups and publications ranked Alexander as among the least conservative of Senate Republicans for 2012.
The incumbent voted with Obama 62 percent of the time last year, according to Congressional Quarterly. It was more often than any other Southern Republican.
And the nation's leading right-wing group, the American Conservative Union, only gave him a 77 percent score. To be considered a true conservative, the group required 80 percent or better.
Alexander's defenders contend these groups and publications offer a distorted view because of the arbitrariness of issues picked for scoring. Other groups important to conservatives, such as the National Federation of Independent Business, give him a perfect score, they add.
Regardless, what tea party members want, Cunningham said, is a senator more like Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky or Ted Cruz of Texas, tea party Republicans elected to the chamber over the past two elections.
"He (Alexander) talks like a conservative, but he does not have the fire and the passion we would like to see in a senator," Cunningham said.
Alexander's aides say those who doubt his passion, should look at how he has opposed Obama on issue after issue since the latter first became president in 2009.
The $800 billion-plus economic stimulus plan, the bailout of automobile companies and the president's health care reform plan -- especially his health care reform plan -- were among those administration ideas that met with his immediate disapproval.
During 2009 alone, aides say, Alexander went to the Senate floor more than 60 times to denounce Obama proposals. And he called the president's first budget "a blueprint for our country our children and grandchildren can't afford."
In 2010, when Obama held a televised meeting with members of Congress from both parties to discuss his health care plan, Alexander challenged Obama in person, telling him the proposed law would result in widespread increases in insurance rates. A just-released Society of Actuaries report proves him right, the senator contends.
Meanwhile, Tennessee Republicans from fellow Sen. Bob Corker to former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, have endorsed Alexander. "He has a ton of endorsements," said Duffy, The Cook Political Report analyst.
The long list of endorsements, the fundraising and outreach to tea partiers, she said, indicates Alexander's campaign "is getting done what they need to do."
Contact Paul C. Barton at email@example.com