Tipper in 2004?

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Angela Rowlings/AP

Not Ready to Run: Tipper

Tipper Gore's seemingly sudden consideration of a Senate bid seemed to take everyone by surprise last week. "This is insane," said one friend of the former second lady. The woman who seemed to shy away from public life, who was so emblematic of the reluctant political spouse who preferred family dinners to fundraisers, suddenly cut short a California trip to race home to Tennessee and meet with advisors — just like any pol considering a big run.

But perhaps it shouldn't have come as such a shock. It used to be that the preferred way for political spouses to gain elective office was to have their husbands keel over. Most of the century's first women in Congress were political widows such as Margaret Chase Smith, the legendary Republican Senator from Maine who succeeded her husband and took on Joe McCarthy. The first woman elected to the Senate was Arkansas's Hattie Wyatt Caraway who was appointed to fill her husband's term in 1932 and was elected on her own later that year. Edith Wilson effectively ran the White House after husband Woodrow was waylaid by a stroke. Today, there are still plenty of widows on the political scene, including two from Missouri, Sen. Jean Carnahan and Rep. JoAnn Emerson and two California House members, Mary Bono, wife of the famed Sonny, and Lois Capps.

But now more women seem to be stepping up to the plate while their husbands are still breathing. There's Hillary Clinton, of course, and Liddy Dole who is running for the Senate in North Carolina in a race of her own. Girl power extends to Arkansas, Janet Huckabee, wife of the outgoing Republican governor, is expected to announce her bid to become the state's secretary of state.

If she tosses her Easter Bonnet in the ring, could Tipper Gore make it? On the upside, she'd attract national attention and would be swimming in money and name recognition. But so would her likely opponent, former Gov. Lamar Alexander. The conventional wisdom is that Tennessee has drifted to the right and is inhospitable for Democrats, but the state remains closely divided and her charm is considerable. If she wins, there's nothing to preclude Al from running for President in '04. Ted Kennedy served in the Senate while brother John was in the White House. Meanwhile, even if she doesn't run, Tipper's only brought more attention to political spouses. After this week, would it shock anyone if consultants were busily recruiting Lynne Cheney and Hadassah Lieberman?