Campaign '06: The G.O.P. Gets Nervous in Tennessee

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If there is a place to measure growing Republican desperation over maintaining control in the U.S. Senate, it is surely Tennessee. The state was supposed to be a Republican sweep, but Democrat Harold Ford Jr. is unexpectedly running neck and neck with Republican Bob Corker and stands a fair chance of becoming the first black Southerners have popularly elected to the U.S. Senate. Indeed, Tennessee hasn't seen so much national political attention since President Bush beat Vice President Al Gore in his home state. Bush has come calling twice, helping Corker raise $2.1 million, as have U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bill Frist, while former senators Fred Thompson and Howard Baker have thrown their support behind Corker even as former President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have stumped for Ford.

Polls which weeks ago showed Corker with a double-digit lead over Ford now have Ford drawing even: a Wall Street Journal/Zogby poll released Thursday shows Corker leading 49.4% to Ford's 42%, but with a 3.3% margin of error, statistically that leaves the race too close to call.

How a junior Congressman with little name recognition in Tennessee beyond his native Memphis has managed to force the state's thoroughly entrenched Republicans into a panicked sweat is a testament to Republican overconfidence and Ford's charisma. Political observers say Republicans — and even some Democrats — were all too certain that no amount of support from national Democrats could convince conservative Tennesseans to send a young black candidate from a family tainted by political corruption to the Senate. Against all political wisdom and warnings that he was throwing money away, Ford, who had no primary opponents, launched his campaign in April, even while Corker and the other Republican primary candidates launched ugly attacks against each other.

While they alienated voters, Ford hit the airwaves with one ad after another, presenting himself as a conservative, middle-of-the-road Democrat who supports posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, opposes same-sex marriage, and reminding Tennesseans that during his tenure in Congress he supported $5.5 trillion in federal tax cuts. Thanks to a personal charisma reminiscent of Bill Clinton's and a marathon schedule that includes visiting the most remote areas in the state, Ford inoculated himself against charges that he was an unwelcome, out-of-touch liberal from Memphis.

Still, Republicans have done their best to paint Ford as a Washington-reared insider dependent on out-of-state campaign contributions while subtly reminding voters of Ford's family history: while in Congress his father, Harold Ford Sr., was indicted on federal bank fraud charges (he was ultimately acquitted); that uncle John Ford was forced last year to resign his state senate seat after being indicted on federal bribery charges for which he now awaits trial; and that aunt Ophelia Ford was ousted from her state senate seat because of voting irregularities.

And as the race has heated up, the issue of race itself has become an ugly part of the campaign. Over the last few weeks, Republicans have aired three questionable ads against Ford, the latest so blatant that Corker condemned it and asked WHIN radio in Gallatin, Tennessee, to stop airing it. In the first 24 seconds, the one-minute ad attacking Ford and his father, and paid for by Tennesseans for Truth, uses the word "black" six times and accuses Ford of favoring African-American issues above others. "His daddy handed him his seat in Congress and his seat in the Congressional Black Caucus, an all-black group of congressmen who represent the interests of black people above all others," the narrator says. Station manager Jack Williams says he pulled the spot hours before Corker's staff contacted him and that it aired just once.

While the ad was not sanctioned by the Republican Party, it came on the heels of two that were: an RNC television commercial that concludes with a backlit figure of Ford striding into a dark hallway and towards the screen in a manner reminiscent of Willie Horton, and a fund-raising mailer designed by the state Republican Party bearing black-and-white photos of Ford that make him look much darker-skinned than he is and uses phrases including "purports," "pretends," and "passes himself off as" — all terms once used for light-skinned blacks who pretended to be white.

State Republican party Chairman Bob Davis has called the allegations of racism ludicrous, but whether the photos were intentionally darkened does not matter, says Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. "The only plausible reason to use such a picture is to play the race card — in an effort to frighten and fire up white voters in a key senatorial race," Parham wrote in an editorial on the Center's website. "Whether they acted with malice or moral callousness doesn't really matter, the end result is race as a wedge issue."

For his part, Ford is trying to ignore the mudslinging, making just one comment about the racial undertones in the Republican ads when he told the Chattanooga Times-Free Press that the television ad "injects a little race into this thing, the way they have me pictured." He also refuses to discuss his family. Neither criticizing or defending them, Ford says only that he loves them but is not responsible for their flaws.

Ford's open appeal to Republicans, which relies largely on conservative discontent with the Washington status quo, appears to be working. Conservative East Tennessee columnist Frank Cagle endorses sending Ford to the Senate as a way of holding Republicans responsible for their shortcomings and broken promises.