All eyes on South's big race
Tennessee's Senate contest – about race, faith, and roots – may be key to chamber control.
In a normal election year, Bob Corker would be the favorite to win the Tennessee Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Republican leader, Bill Frist. Mr. Corker is successful in business, experienced in government – most recently as mayor of Chattanooga – and affable in demeanor.Skip to next paragraph
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But this is not a normal year. The GOP's national image is in the tank over Iraq, scandals, and economic insecurity. A majority of Americans want the Democrats to take the reins of Congress. And Corker's opponent is Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) – the poster boy for dynamic, young politicians who are taking the national stage by storm.
History could be in the making. If he wins, Mr. Ford would be the first African-American from the South to take a Senate seat since Reconstruction – a victory that could nudge another ambitious black politician, Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, toward running for president by showing him how to win in the South. As a Democrat comfortable talking about his faith, Ford could show Democrats of all colors how it's done.
A Ford victory could also provide the final seat the Democrats need to win control of the Senate, in a quest that seemed nearly impossible just a few months ago.
It's no wonder "you've got ... press from all over the country, right here on the courthouse steps in Loudon County," Mr. Corker marveled before a crowd of supporters last Sunday afternoon in this small town south of Knoxville, the leaves overhead turning a brilliant shade of Volunteer orange.
Corker knows he can't compete with the 36-year-old Ford on looks or charisma. He says so. But after falling behind in the polls and replacing his campaign manager late in September, he has now settled on his final argument to the people of Tennessee: Vote for me because of my experience and my maturity and because I'm the "real Tennessean."
Corker, his campaign, and national Republicans have also worked hard to drive up Ford's negatives, highlighting some of his relatives' legal troubles, a life spent mostly away from Tennessee, a career in politics, and his bachelor, designer-suit lifestyle.
Ford was elected to represent Tennessee's Ninth Congressional District 10 years ago, following his father, Harold Ford Sr., who held the seat for 22 years.
Now both campaigns say the race is a statistical tie. The sprint to the finish has begun.
Ford's stump speech follows many paths. He has been chiding Corker for saying the US should "stay the course" in Iraq, and on healthcare, and on education, even though Corker distanced himself from "stay the course" months ago, long before President Bush himself did. He calls for the partitioning of Iraq into three areas. He calls for energy independence. He promises, "I won't be 100 percent Democrat; I'm for what's right."
He praises Presidents Truman and Reagan for establishing an American moral authority that was "unquestioned, unassailed." And he makes the pitch for change. "I say it's time for a new direction, a new generation," he says.
Before and after each event, he dispenses hugs easily and poses for countless photographs, pushing his schedule hopelessly behind – like the Democrats' last great campaigner, Bill Clinton.
Ford speaks in the cadence of a Southern preacher, starting slow and building to a crescendo. The references to God and the Bible flow naturally. "When people ask me around this state and around the country, 'How are you guys doing so well?' I say there's a couple reasons – one, we got a big God that we serve...." he says. Voices in the crowd shout back, "All right!" before he can get to point No. 2.
On this Saturday of campaigning around the Nashville area, with popular Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen at his side, the crowd at each stop is enthusiastic and diverse.
In Gallatin, Tenn., with his largest African-American crowd of the day, he gives the most expansive excursion that day into his religious life. "I learned to go to church the old-fashioned way – I was forced to," he quips, a line he uses in the campaign ad he filmed in his childhood Baptist church in Memphis.