The two-time presidential hopeful trounced conservative Rep. Ed Bryant to win the GOP Senate nomination Thursday as Tennessee voters also chose candidates for governor and three open House seats.
Alexander will take on eight-term Rep. Bob Clement, who coasted to the Democratic nomination in the closely watched race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Fred Thompson. Democrats hold a one-seat advantage in the Senate.
Alexander immediately challenged Clement to a series of televised debates to discuss "who is best prepared to be United States senator." Alexander was governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987 and secretary of education from 1991 to 1993.
"When it comes to the big issues, the issues of support for the president and the role of government in our lives, we couldn't disagree more," Alexander said of Clement.
Clement, 58, said he was ready for the fight and suggested that his opponent was better-known for his failed presidential runs in which he wore a distinctive plaid shirt.
"He hasn't been active in Tennessee in over 20 years," Clement said. "Maybe the people in Iowa and New Hampshire know more about him than the people of Tennessee."
Bryant put his differences with Alexander aside and urged teary-eyed supporters to back the Republican nominee.
"We're all going to get behind Lamar Alexander and make sure that he gets elected," Bryant said. "You all know how important it is to the president, to this country that we regain control of the Senate."
In the governor's race, GOP Rep. Van Hilleary and Democrat Phil Bredesen easily advanced to the fall election.
It will be Bredesen's second shot at the job: He lost in 1994 to GOP Gov. Don Sundquist, who is barred from seeking a third term this fall.
Bredesen, a former Nashville mayor, won 79 percent of the vote in the six-way Democratic primary. On the GOP side, Hilleary won 64 percent of the vote in a five-candidate race.
The Senate race has drawn intense scrutiny ever since March, when Thompson announced his decision to retire after only one full term.
The move complicated GOP efforts to overturn the Democrats' slim Senate majority. It also set the stage for the biggest political turnover in Tennessee since 1994 and gave Democrats a chance to recoup losses from that year's GOP landslide.
White House political chief Karl Rove urged Bryant not to run against the better-known Alexander for the sake of party unity. But the four-term congressman who was a House manager during President Clinton's impeachment refused to clear the way for Alexander.
Bryant, 53, launched a vigorous campaign in which he called Alexander, 62, too liberal and a political has-been. But Alexander shrugged off the criticism and said Bryant was the party's worst hope of attracting moderate voters in the general election.
Like Bryant, the 43-year-old Hilleary cast himself as the more conservative candidate in the governor's race. In Congress, he fought for a smaller government, school choice and a strong national defense.
"On my watch, Tennessee will not have an income tax," Hilleary told supporters.
Bredesen told his own supporters that Tennessee needs better management to repair its finances and health care system.
"These are complicated challenges for a governor," he said. "Washington politics can't do it. Gimmicks can't do it."
Bredesen won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1994 but the New York native lost to Sundquist amid criticism that he was a millionaire outsider trying to buy the race. Bredesen, who has lived nearly 30 years in Tennessee, this time relied on contributors to raise more than $5 million.
Among the crowded races for the House seats, Marsha Blackburn won the GOP nod in Bryant's solidly Republican 7th District. If she wins this fall, she would become the first woman sent to Congress from Tennessee who did not succeed a husband who died in office or while campaigning.