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A Contentious Campaign in a Battleground State

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.

One 1994 milestone was the defeat of veteran Senate Democrat Jim Sasser by political newcomer Bill Frist, who rose to become Senate majority leader. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore lost his home state in the general election, costing him the presidency.

But two years later, Tennessee elected a Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen, a pragmatic, low-key former businessman and Nashville mayor. The House delegation flipped to five Democrats and four Republicans. Bredesen is also on the ballot in November, and recent polls show him far ahead of his Republican opponent.

The governor is starring in a Ford campaign ad, and the two are barnstorming around the state. Ford credits him with creating a new Democratic brand. "He's our closer," Ford said. "We're in a position to win, and he's going to push us over the edge."

On May 25, 2005, when the brash young Democrat announced his Senate candidacy, he raised a few eyebrows. A sports junkie known on Capitol Hill for robust socializing, he still seemed a bit young. His ambitions had been obvious from his first days in Congress, and in 2002 he lost a caucus battle to become House minority leader to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who has the job now.

Despite that setback, Ford has fashioned a reputation as a new-generation Democrat, less defined by interest-group politics and with strong opinions of how national Democrats have failed to compete seriously in the South. He is both supremely confident and dead serious. "I will run a very issue-rich, substance-rich campaign," Ford promised in a video that streamed over his new campaign Web site when he announced his Senate run.

On May 26, 2005, his uncle John Ford, a state senator, was indicted on corruption charges. It was a reminder -- though few politically aware people in this state needed one -- that Ford hailed from an illustrious Memphis clan. Fords had served in state and local government for decades, and a few had scrapes with the law.

Ford's father was one of 12 children of a funeral-home entrepreneur; Harold Ford Sr. served 11 terms in the House before his son took over the seat. The elder Ford was acquitted of bank-fraud charges in 1990. Another uncle, Emmett Ford, had resigned from the state legislature in 1981 after being convicted of insurance fraud.

When Ford ran to succeed his father, he billed himself proudly as "Junior." But his role model, as he told the Democratic National Convention in his 2000 keynote address, was former Tennessee senator and vice president Al Gore. He recalled meeting Gore (a fellow graduate of St. Albans School in Washington) in his family kitchen in Memphis.

"It was a time when, on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate, young Americans were turning away from public service. But Al Gore didn't turn away. He jumped feet first into public life," the young congressman recalled.

A Fierce Campaigner

Corker, who is 54, spent his early adult years creating a lucrative construction business. He was appointed state finance commissioner during the late 1990s and was elected Chattanooga mayor in 2001. He is credited with the impressive redevelopment of the city's riverfront.

White-haired and compact, with a rich twang, Corker has a friendly rapport with voters but has proven himself over the years to be a fierce competitor. When he ran against Frist in the 1994 GOP primary, Corker was called "pond scum" by Frist campaign manager Tom Perdue for airing an ad that suggested Frist had dodged the draft.

This year, as Corker slogged through a rough-and-tumble GOP primary with two more conservative opponents, Ford campaign insiders braced for a barrage of attacks. It has been unrelenting. Most of Corker's ads, news releases and campaign speeches are attacks on Ford, addressing such things as his House voting record and his not passing the bar exam.

Ford's rhetorical skills and good looks are particular targets. A new Corker ad features a series of ordinary-looking voters raising questions about Ford, with one woman asking "Has Junior ever had a job outside of politics?" and another noting "He does look good on TV."

Corker's attacks appear to have thrown Ford somewhat off-stride in recent days. The congressman showed up at a recent Corker news conference to insist that he stop criticizing the Ford family, a move Republicans called undignified. But some Republicans are concerned Corker is not working hard enough to whip up support in his party, in particular among the socially conservative voters who preferred his primary opponents, former representatives Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant.

"The differences need to be spelled out aggressively in the next few weeks," Frist said as the Senate majority leader campaigned with Corker in Athens, Tenn. Frist said Corker must convince Tennessee voters that he is "a genuine person who has their values."

While visiting a diner in Oak Ridge, Corker stopped to shake hands with Linda Ramsey, who was having lunch with her husband, Dale, and daughter Kelcee. Ramsey responded with a big smile when Corker asked for her vote. But when he moved to the next table, she conceded she was leaning toward Ford.

Although she supported Corker in the primary, Ramsey explained, "all he wants to do is point fingers. Ford is stepping up above it."

Ford is difficult to typecast -- conservative on some issues and liberal on others. In Coalmont, one of Ford's biggest applause lines came when he called for "character education" in public schools to teach the difference between right and wrong. But he also drew cheers when he suggested that the federal government take a bigger role in education.

Ford filmed a television ad inside the Memphis church he attended as a child, and he fondly recalls the times his maternal grandmother chased after him with a switch.

The state Democratic Party is working particularly hard to rally black voters. State party officials believe African Americans could push Ford over the top if they turn out in large numbers. In addition to clutching Bredesen's coattails, Ford has tethered himself to Rep. Lincoln Davis, a popular two-term Democrat from a rural, white central Tennessee district and the chairman of Ford's campaign.

Davis said he polled his district in July and found Ford trailing 49 percent to 35 percent. "I didn't even tell his campaign," Davis acknowledged.

New numbers came back a few weeks ago showing Ford ahead 49 percent to 39 percent. "He's a rock star, a superstar," Davis said. "And if he wins my district, he's the next senator from Tennessee."

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