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FILE - In an Oct. 26, 2017, file photo, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., leaves the House chamber. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
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NASHVILLE — By sticking to his original decision not to seek re-election, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., may have cleared the path for conservative firebrand and U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn to become the GOP's nominee.

And if that indeed happens, Tennesseans can expect the general election fight with expected Democratic nominee Phil Bredesen to get off to a quick start, observers say.

After seriously weighing reversing his September decision not to seek a third term, Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, announced Tuesday he wouldn't run.

Corker Chief of Staff Todd Womack said the senator had been "encouraged by people across Tennessee" to reconsider and had done his "due diligence" with "a clear path for re-election ... laid out.

"However," Womack said in his statement, "at the end of the day, the senator believes he made the right decision in September and will be leaving the Senate when his term expires at the end of 2018."

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In this Jan. 24, 2018, file photo, Sen Bob Corker, R-Tenn., speaks at a news conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Corker says he will no longer block Persian Gulf nations from buying American-made lethal weapons even though the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its neighbors remains in a stalemate.. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

Reactions to Corker's announcement

"I want to thank Senator Corker for his dedicated service on behalf of Tennessee families. Now, we can unify the Republican party and focus on defeating Democrat Phil Bredesen in November. As we continue to take our campaign to every corner of the state, I'm looking forward to listening to Tennesseans families and sharing my ideas on how we can get the United States Senate back to work and pass President Trump's agenda."
— Marsha Blackburn

"Republicans raised concerns over Congresswoman Blackburn because they know she is out of touch with Tennessee. Their public display of anxiety has not only underscored her vulnerabilities but revealed a point of agreement between Democrats and Republicans: Congresswoman Blackburn is not fit to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate."
— DSCC spokesman David Bergstein

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Tom Ingram, a long-time Tennessee political strategist and Corker adviser who has been involved in most successful statewide Republican campaigns since the 1970s, said, "I think he could have won."

"I think he didn't do it because as he thought about it again, he realized that what he was really struggling with was missing ... public service rather than missing the Senate," Ingram said. "In addition, I think he was worried he'd have to run a primary campaign of which he might not be proud."

Corker's interest was sparked by a recent poll commissioned by a Tennessee group of businesspeople that said Bredesen, a pro-business, moderate former Nashville mayor and two-term governor, had a 2 percentage-point lead in the general election.

The other announced major Republican candidate, former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., soon announced he was dropping out of the contest and encouraged Corker to get in.

With Corker now definitively out, Ingram said: "I don't want to minimize other people who may be on the ballot, but I think between Blackburn and Bredesen, you're going to see a general election tone begin right away."

Blackburn only entered the contest after Corker's September announcement he would not run. As it became clear Corker was reconsidering, she quickly vowed to stay in the race and fight. Her campaign spokeswoman attacked anyone who doubted Blackburn's ability to win a general election contest as "just a plain sexist pig" and critics as "ego-driven, tired old men."

Hard-right Republican groups and activists began releasing their own polls they said showed Blackburn with double-digit leads over Corker following the senator's nationally publicized criticisms of President Trump and the president's responses.

Following Corker's announcement on Tuesday, Blackburn quickly issued a statement thanking the senator for his service.

"Now," Blackburn said, "we can unify the Republican party and focus on defeating Democrat Phil Bredesen in November."

Bredesen spokeswoman Alyssa Hansen, meanwhile, said in her own statement that Bredesen was "glad" to "see the race taking shape and he remains focused on running a 95-county campaign to win in November.

"The contrast between candidates is now clear," she said. "Tennessee voters can pick someone who caused gridlock in Washington over the past 15 years — or they can hire someone who has a proven track record of working across the aisle to get things done for all Tennesseans."

But there could be yet another twist in this campaign, with another GOP candidate jumping in before the April 5 filing deadline.

Williamson County businessman Darrell Lynn told the Times Free Press last week and re-confirmed Tuesday he expects to run. He said he is a self-made millionaire, can easily spend $5 million and plans on pulling papers Thursday to file as a candidate.

While Ingram was unfamiliar with Lynn, Steve Gill, a former conservative radio talk show host and political activist, said Lynn "seems like a nice guy" but has "no base and money alone won't do it. If he has $5 million to throw at it and does, then he might create a stir."

This Tennessee political saga all began Sept. 26 when Corker announced he would not seek reelection, noting he had stated when he ran in 2006 that he could not see himself serving more than two terms.

Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman had been briefly considered by then-candidate and now President Trump as his 2016 running mate and later for secretary of state.

But Corker made national headlines last August following the senator's address to the Chattanooga Rotary Club last August where he criticized Trump's ambivalent response over who was at fault in deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., between anti-white supremacist demonstrators and neo-Nazis.

After announcing he would not seek re-election Sept. 26, the relationship was increasingly testy. Following one presidential tweet, Corker returned fire, calling the White House an "adult day care center" with no one evidently in charge that day. That drew a derisive response from Trump who mocked the senator as "Liddle Bob Corker" who couldn't "get elected dog catcher."

But the duo have since had a public cease fire. Corker has said repeatedly they have since repaired their relationship and he remains close to the president's daughter, Ivanka, and others in the administration as well.

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As Corker began reconsidering his decision not to run, the question became what would Trump do.

"I think he would have been at least neutral and I think that's all Bob needed," Ingram said. "You didn't want to run in Tennessee and have Trump against you."

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said those wanting Corker to reconsider were worried about Blackburn's viability in the general election.

"This is not the first time the country-club Republicans have gotten nervous about who's going to fill the Senate seat," Oppenheimer said.

Moderate-to-conservative Republicans like Corker and the party's hardline conservatives have battled here for years.

Former governor and now-U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., faced conservative opposition in 2002 from then-U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant, R-Tenn., in his first Senate race, beating Bryant. In 2014, Alexander had a more narrow victory over GOP firebrand Joe Carr.

Alexander in a statement Tuesday called Corker "a terrific United States senator and a good friend.

"I was disappointed in his decision not to run for re-election but respect that decision," Alexander said. "I invited Marsha Blackburn to breakfast this morning. We had a good discussion about a variety of issues that we both care about and how we might work together to make the Senate a more effective institution."

Meanwhile, some Republicans were miffed that Corker didn't endorse Blackburn outright.

Said a Corker aide: "The senator does not typically get involved in primaries but has always planned to support the nominee."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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