This Year's Southern Prodigy

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- On the grounds of the old Rutherford County Courthouse, in the middle of the Murfreesboro Town Square, about a half-hour's drive from downtown Nashville, there's a plaque commemorating what Civil War buffs know as Forrest's First Raid. Here, in July 1862, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader turned Confederate general, and his troops surprised and captured an entire Union garrison.

Forrest may be the most prominent figure in American history who could happily have captained a German SS unit. In 1864 his troops massacred hundreds of African American Union soldiers whom they'd captured after the surrender of Fort Pillow. And after the war Forrest was a founder and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Which made the rally at the courthouse last Saturday all the more remarkable. Several hundred Murfreesboro Democrats, a clear majority of them white, had come out on a brutally hot morning to hear Harold Ford Jr. -- the 36-year-old congressman from Memphis who is the Democratic nominee for the Senate seat that Bill Frist is vacating. To recapture the Senate this year, the Democrats need Ford to take Tennessee -- no small challenge, since Tennessee hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1990, and since Ford, like just 16 percent of his fellow Tennesseans, is African American.

Yet Ford is still very much in the hunt, and after just a few minutes in his presence, it's no mystery why: He is, in the tradition of Southern pols ranging from Huey Long to Bill Clinton, a preternaturally gifted campaigner. Young, single, handsome in a way that pols almost never are (he is the only elected official I've ever seen who could have a successful career as a model), blessed with a perfect ear for both political argument and the exigencies of local politics, Ford is a sight to behold.

Consider the following Ford attack on the Republicans' national security bona fides. "When we fill up our gas tanks, we send money to the other side in the war on terrorism -- Iran," he tells the crowd. "Think of Iran as a venture capital company that invests in an unusual kind of start-up -- terrorist organizations. It's a big venture capital fund, and who's its biggest investor? You are. Yet our government does nothing to fund alternative sources of energy," he says, noting that his campaign car is powered by biodiesel fuels and arguing that Tennessee's economy could profit if the federal government had the horse sense to promote hybrid cars and alternative fuels.

Ford seems to have been readying himself for this race for virtually his entire life. The son of a longtime congressman from Memphis -- home to the state's only majority-black congressional district -- Ford succeeded his father in that seat 10 years ago at the tender age of 26. His voting record is much more that of a pol planning to run statewide in a conservative state than it is of a House member from a heavily black and Democratic district. Ford has supported constitutional amendments to ban flag burning, to permit prayer in schools and to mandate balanced budgets. He has also generally supported free-trade legislation, voted for the bill making it harder for people of modest means to file for bankruptcy, favored cuts in the estate and capital gains taxes, and suggested means-testing for Social Security benefits.

Plainly, Ford is no Tennessee populist in the tradition of the original Albert Gore -- or the original Andrew Jackson. Far from warring on the banks, Ford is a member of the capital markets subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, and he has raised a fat chunk of change from Wall Street. The liberals I spoke with at his events this past weekend certainly weren't thrilled by all his positions. They were thrilled, however, by the emergence of a candidate with a Clintonian ability to deflect Republican attacks -- and by the prospect of their state electing a senator who is young, gifted and black.

Ford's Republican opponent, former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, who defeated two more-conservative candidates in the Aug. 3 primary, is the clear favorite in the race, though the first post-primary poll showed him leading Ford by just six points. Ford seems determined to close that gap by running not just to the right but also just plain harder than any candidate we've seen in years.

When the rally ended, he visited every store on or around the town square, chatting up the patrons, and then stood in the middle of an intersection, talking with those drivers who had their windows rolled down and, if they said anything friendly in return, slapping a bumper sticker on their rear windshields. As once was said of Huey, Lyndon and Bill, ain't nobody gonna out-campaign this fella.

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