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Laying It On the Line

Bob Corker says "this summer" is crucial for the military effort in Iraq.

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It was in the suburbs and rural areas of West Tennessee that Bob Corker probably gained a decisive edge over Democratic opponent Harold Ford Jr. during the U.S. Senate election of 2006. Or so most post-election analysis indicated.

And Oakland, Tennessee, a fast-growing municipality in Fayette County, where the freshman Republican senator held a town meeting on Monday, is both suburban enough and rural enough to qualify as an integral part of Corker's constituent base.

Residents of Fayette County are also, as Corker made a point of noting Monday, second to none in the fervor of their patriotic feeling.

So when Corker, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, focused on Iraq in his remarks at the town meeting, it may safely be assumed that he was talking turkey, putting his true sentiments on the line.

One thing the senator made clear right away was his commitment to full financial and moral support to commanding general David Petraeus and the ongoing "surge" effort in Iraq, but Corker insisted that positive results were needed this summer, before the Senate takes up the issue of supplemental appropriations in September.

"We need to give General Petraeus the time he needs through this summer ... to turn what has been a downward spiral ... into an upward spiral for the people of Iraq," Corker said. He employed the phrase "through this summer" over and over as a frame for his — and the Senate's — commitment to the current military effort.

At one point, an audience member wondered if media reports from Iraq, "which I tend to think are more liberal in the presentation of the information we get," could be trusted.

Corker's answer was careful and measured. Petraeus had "tremendous concern" about prospects in Iraq, he said. The senator noted that he had discussed the war effort with Petraeus three times — in Washington, during a time of "energy and enthusiasm" before the general undertook his present field duties, again during a visit by Corker to Iraq, and once more during a recent briefing by Petraeus on a return visit to Washington.

"And I will tell you, he is very concerned," Corker repeated.

There had been progress made in outlying provinces, where tribesmen had signaled their exasperation with an al-Qaeda presence, Corker said, but the picture in Baghdad was far bleaker, both in terms of mounting military confrontations and increased bombings and from the standpoint of the Iraqi government's own insufficient effort, both military and political.

"Iraqi culture just doesn't move at the same pace that we do," said Corker, noting that the country's government had been slow to move toward political reconciliation of the three basic Iraqi populations: Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.

"We've insisted on reforms, but there is tremendous hatred among the Iraqi people. These things are not happening yet," Corker said.

"It's a tough situation, and I know that, as you mention, the media paints it out to be a tough situation, but it actually is a tough situation. There are some successes that are taking place over in the hinterlands, if you will, that are away from the urban area of Baghdad. I don't think that's exactly what you wanted to hear."

The senator was asked after the meeting if he supported the efforts of the 11 Republican members of Congress who met with President Bush last week and cautioned the president to let Petraeus, rather than himself or anyone else associated with the White House, serve as principal spokesperson on the war.

"I think that General Petraeus is the man on the ground. ... I really do think at this point in the war's evolution, it's so politicized, that General Petraeus is respected by Republicans and Democrats, and I think people view him as somebody they can trust. ... Politics are very thick right now, and he [Petraeus] is above politics, and I really do think that he's the best possible spokesman."

Asked about a possible presidential bid by former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, Corker made it clear he would be supportive of a Thompson candidacy. "I think Fred is going to run. He's a great communicator, and not just our country, but the world, needs a great communicator."

During the town meeting, Corker also emphasized his concerns about developing Tennessee's biofuels industry as a partial solution to the nation's energy needs and indicated his commitment to rethinking how health care is financed.

The visit to Oakland followed several earlier appearances by Corker in Memphis.

Steve Cohen is no half-hearted booster of Kevin Gallagher for the open District 89 state House seat. That was the word last weekend from the 9th District congressman himself — disappointing though it may be to some of the boosters of Jeanne Richardson's Democratic candidacy for the seat.

There were claims here and there, even after Cohen's yard on Kenilworth sprouted a Gallagher campaign sign a week or two ago, that Cohen intended to give only pro forma support to Gallagher, who was campaign manager for his successful run last year in Memphis' 9th congressional district.

Not so, says Cohen, who went on to suggest, without elaborating, that if things got "nasty" in the race between the two Democrats, he would feel compelled to intervene on Gallagher's behalf more directly than he has to date.

"I'm focusing on my congressional duties," said Cohen, who professed to have no problem with Richardson's candidacy, largely directed by his sometime associate David Upton, but acknowledged that the "hard core" of his former campaign staff was involved in the Gallagher campaign. The congressman also confirmed that he had made a substantial contribution to Gallagher's campaign coffers and had encouraged others to do so.

District 89 was formerly represented by Beverly Marrero, who earlier this year was elected to succeed Cohen in state Senate District 30. The Democratic primary race between Gallagher and Richardson is regarded as nip-and-tuck by most observers.

Marrero and the previous District 89 representative, City Council member and mayoral candidate Carol Chumney, have both added their names to an impressive endorsement list compiled by the Richardson campaign.

Gallagher and Richardson will get their first direct opportunity to confront each other one-on-one next Sunday, May 20th, at a forum hosted by the Memphis Stonewall Democrats at the Gay & Lesbian Community Center at 892 S. Cooper.

Two candidates — Wayne McGinnis and Dave Wicker Jr. — are also vying in the Republican primary, which has so far attracted conspicuously less attention. Both party primaries will be held May 31st, with the winners competing in the special general election on July 17th.

Early voting in the District 89 primary race began Friday at Election Commission headquarters at 157 Poplar and will continue through Saturday, May 26th.

• Cohen's predecessor, former Memphis congressman Ford, now chairman of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, was in Nashville Monday morning, where he, DLC founder Al From, and several prominent Tennessee political figures announced that the DLC's "National Conversation" would be held this year in the Tennessee state capital.

Ford pronounced himself "very pleased" that the event would be held in Nashville, which was headquarters for his unsuccessful U.S. Senate run last year. "The South is a region with enormous opportunity for New Democrats, and we look forward to showcasing our ideas here," Ford said.

The official DLC release added: "The National Conversation will provide a forum for an exchange of ideas on some of the most pressing challenges facing our country, including security, making America competitive in a global economy, poverty, and energy."

Governor Phil Bredesen, honorary chair for the event, took part in the announcement, as did three honorary co-chairs: congressmen Jim Cooper and Lincoln Davis and Nashville mayor Bill Purcell. The event, which will take place July 28th-30th at the Opryland Hotel, is expected to attract some, if not all, of the active Democratic candidates for president.

• State House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, a Democrat, has been opposed by a succession of Republican challengers in recent years. He'll apparently have one more to deal with in 2008: activist Jeff Ward, a longtime Tipton County activist and leader of the statewide organization TeamGOP, who said this week he intends a race for Naifeh's seat.

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