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.

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 message on the stump

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.

He talks about driving by the Little Rebel Bar and Grill in Jackson, Tenn., one day and how "my God is telling me to stop by" – despite the Confederate flags on the trucks outside. He recalls the words of the pastor he had just met: "There are more answers than problems, and there are more Davids than Goliaths." Ford and his driver walk in and, he says, "a lady got off the stool and gave me a big hug and said, 'Baby, we've been waitin' on you to come by.' "

The racial dimension of the Ford-Corker contest looms large. Pollsters speak of a race effect on surveys– that is, shave off a few percentage points from the black candidate's total, since some white voters tell pollsters what they think they want to hear, that they're willing to vote for a black candidate when in reality they're not.

One Republican activist in Tennessee, who asked not to be identified, says he believes the racial aspect will be a wash in this race: Some whites won't vote for a black man, but turnout in the black community, 16 percent of the electorate, will be higher than usual.

Furthermore, says the activist, "this is a Southern state, but it's not a deep South state, so everything that applies to the South, you can cut a little bit."

Linda Boyd, a computer assistant in the Clarksville, Tenn., schools who is African-American, says she's been out canvassing for Ford and had people tell her they would never vote for him. "I know what they mean," she says.

Ford's big, political family – some of whom have been prosecuted for corruption – may also hurt him. At the Corker event in Loudon, some of those attending said that even if Ford himself isn't corrupt, he benefits from his family's activities. But among Ford fans, his big, political family is a plus. "The Fords are fighters," says Mary Hoskins of Clarksville. And she's not concerned about some Fords' legal troubles. "Everyone's got someone in their family," she says.

And what about Ford's life outside Tennessee? After his father's first term in Congress, he moved the family to Washington, where Harold Jr. was enrolled at the same elite prep school, St. Albans, that another son of Tennessee, Al Gore, had attended. Ford then attended the University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan Law School, and at age 26 was elected to Congress.

Corker's profile

Corker, in contrast, was born in South Carolina, moved to Tennessee at age 11, and has lived here ever since. In an interview, Corker calls Ford "a nice young man," but adds that "I just know that I more fully represent the values of this state."

After Corker won the primary, against two more-conservative Republicans, he set out to portray Ford as a liberal, but it didn't work. Ford is one of the most conservative members of the Congressional Black Caucus. He opposes gay marriage, so-called partial birth abortion, and what he calls "amnesty for illegals."

Corker, a moderate Republican who at one time supported abortion rights, may have trouble inspiring Christian conservatives to turn out for him. Even though the National Right to Life Committee has endorsed Corker, Tennessee Right to Life has refused.

"That sends a signal to some people," says the Republican activist. "Tennessee Right to Life isn't huge, but in a close election, every vote counts."

An expensive contest

And in a close election, with control of the Senate on the line, both parties are spending millions of dollars on ads, some of them suggestive and nasty, leading the candidates to call on their parties to take them down. In a preemptive move, Ford showed up at the Memphis airport last Friday and confronted Corker right before the Republican was due to give a press conference. The Corker campaign has been publicizing the dustup ever since, saying it shows Ford's lack of maturity.

The wealthy Corker also has the option of writing another large check to his campaign. If he does so in the final days, that would make it difficult for Ford to invoke the federal "millionaire's clause," which allows Ford to raise more money from his donors.

Still, the larger forces at play in the campaign haven't changed. "The combination of facing a strong Democrat who's moderate and a year that isn't particularly kind to Republicans – Corker may just lose this thing," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "But I'm not prepared to make any predictions."

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