Tennessee's Senate Race

A Contentious Campaign in a Battleground State

Democrat Harold Ford Jr. is in a surprisingly close battle with Republican Bob Corker.
Democrat Harold Ford Jr. is in a surprisingly close battle with Republican Bob Corker. (By Mark Humphrey -- Associated Press)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

COALMONT, Tenn. -- John Layne is a 57-year-old white Republican with a long gray beard, no job and advancing emphysema. He arrived an hour early to hear Harold Ford Jr. speak in this struggling mountain town.

"Oh, sure, there's some prejudice," Layne said as he contemplated casting a ballot for a black man. "I wouldn't want my daughter marrying one." But he's more concerned about rising medical costs: When it comes to voting, "you gotta look at the person, not the color."

Ford announced his Senate campaign 18 months ago with three strikes against him: He was a Democrat, he was black, and he carried family baggage. The five-term congressman was wildly popular in his Memphis House district and was viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party. But statewide office seemed beyond reach in Tennessee, a state with a history of racially divided voting where Republicans had won recent Senate races.

Now this political curiosity has become one of the most intense and bitter contests of the season. With the Nov. 7 elections two weeks away, Ford is locked in a surprisingly close battle with Republican Bob Corker. The latest poll -- released yesterday by Mason-Dixon -- showed the charismatic Ford trailing 45 percent to 43 percent.

A Senate Battleground

Tennessee is one of the four remaining Senate battlegrounds, along with Virginia, Missouri and Rhode Island, that operatives in both parties believe are most likely to determine whether Republicans maintain control of the Senate in January. But this race is in a different category because of Ford's profile.

Corker and Ford tangle over all the usual issues, including the war in Iraq, education and energy independence, with both candidates holding mainstream views on most topics. Yet every speech, slogan and campaign ad seems to echo with double meaning.

"I'm a believer that this moment is a big one," Ford, 36, told the Coalmont crowd, as Layne nodded approvingly from his seat in front of the podium. "I'll make you a good senator. I just want to go up there and do right."

Corker depicts himself as more "senatorial" than Ford but is running an almost entirely negative campaign at this point. He depicts Ford as a smooth-talking city slicker who has deeper roots in Washington, D.C. -- where Ford lived for part of his childhood -- compared with Corker, the self-described "real Tennessean" in the race.

The hardest blows have come from the national GOP. The National Republican Senatorial Committee ridicules Ford's expensive tastes on a "Fancy Ford" Web site, and the Republican National Committee is airing a controversial new ad that features a scantily clad blonde who says she met Ford at a Playboy party. "Harold, call me!" the woman chirps.

The former Chattanooga mayor often appears to be tiptoeing through a rhetorical minefield, eager to discredit his Democratic opponent with the sharpest weapons he can find but wary about accusations of playing racial politics. "Our life experiences could not be more different," Corker said in an interview. "For him, politics is a way of life."

Does the race factor influence his campaign decisions? "I understand the point of your question," Corker responded carefully in a recent interview. Then he shook his head and looked away.

A Symbolic Victory?

If Ford pulls it off, he will become the first black senator to represent the South since Reconstruction. Victory in Tennessee also would be particularly symbolic for the Democratic Party, a bookend of sorts to the 1994 "Republican Revolution." That historic election, which gave the GOP control of both chambers of Congress, was tilted by races in the same Upper South states where Democrats are seeking to wrest power from Republicans this year.

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