Campaign '06: Could a Gay Marriage Amendment Help Harold Ford?

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Looking as boyish as a silver-haired 54-year-old can, Bob Corker admits in one of his latest television ads that he isn't "as good-looking" as his opponent Harold Ford Jr. For his part, Ford says in his own ad (with a grin) that if he owned a dog, Corker "would kick him too."

There is certainly no love lost between the Republican and Democratic candidates fighting for Bill Frist's Senate seat in Tennessee. At one point, Ford interrupted a Corker press conference with demands that his opponent explain his position on Iraq, while Corker, during a recent debate, demanded to know how many people Ford has personally employed. Ads against Ford—who stands to become the first black Southerners have freely elected to the Senate—have included jungle drums beating in the background, blonde bimbos whispering "call me" and questions about his faith and family. Meanwhile, ads against Corker have questioned the Republican's real estate deals, his success as mayor of Chattanooga and his involvement in the hiring of illegal aliens by a subcontractor working for him. Coming into the final days of a race too close to call the mud is pouring down, the money is flowing and the stars are being trotted out at a breakneck pace.

While U.S. Sen. John McCain was scheduled to glad-hand with Corker on Friday, former President Bill Clinton stumped for Ford on his home turf in Memphis Wednesday. At the same time, VoteVets Action Fund, organized by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, prepared to spend $480,000 to blitz Tennessee with a television ad critical of U.S. policy in Iraq and, by inference, of Republicans like Corker.

Corker, who has already spent $14.2 million to Ford's $10.6 million, upped the ante Wednesday when he donated $2 million of his own money to his campaign. The move triggers the millionaires' amendment, lifting the $2,100 limit on individual donors and allowing Ford to accept up to $12,600 from them. Still, in a reference to the latest barrage of ads—these attacking his family's less than stellar political history—Ford told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that it is "depressing that my opponent has made a donation to himself to run a smear campaign against me."

Whether Republican tactics are working is anyone's guess; the latest polls show everything from Corker with an eight-point lead to Ford ahead by five points. Separate CNN and Reuters/Zogby polls released Tuesday gave Corker an 8- to 10-point lead over Ford, while a poll for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has Ford leading Corker 46 to 40 and Ford's internal figures have him up by 5 points.

And yet it all may be moot. The nasty ads, personal attacks and avalanche of money may have little to do with the outcome of Tuesday's race, since both candidates appear to have forgotten the twist on Tennessee's ballot: a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban gay marriage—which both candidates support. Under state law, a constitutional amendment can be adopted only if more than 50% of the people voting for governor vote for the amendment. Political insiders say that usually causes great confusion at the polls and results in many one-shot votes: instead of simply abstaining from the governor's race, people who want the amendment passed avoid voting on anything else. Since conservative Christians are the most likely to vote for the ballot—and to vote Republican—the practice could give Ford just the edge he needs.