"It was a technical knockout, no contest. It was embarrassing," said erstwhile Democratic primary candidate Tyson Pratcher about the first real debate Monday night between the three remaining candidates for the 9th District congressional seat -- Democratic nominee Steve Cohen, Republican nominee Mark White, and independent Jake Ford.
In the judgment of Pratcher (and almost every other unbiased observer), Cohen, an experienced state legislator with a quarter-century's worth of experience, was the "winner" of the hour-long encounter at the Central Library, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. And there was no doubt who the loser was, at least relatively speaking -- first-time candidate Ford, who needed only a credible outing, on top of two prior strong performances, to be able to mount a serious challenge for the seat being vacated by his illustrious brother Harold Ford Jr.
The GOP's White had his moments, especially at the close when he uttered a passionate call for partisans of all causes to dissolve their differences in a common effort to find solutions to basic problems -- including, presumably, the educational deficiencies and high mortality rate of the district that White had been previously emphatic (and empathetic) about.
And there was no doubting White's sincerity in expressing such home truths as "A country without borders is not a country" and "We need fathers in homes."
But it was Cohen who best articulated specific answers, as when, in response to a question about Iraq, he deftly communicated a sense of domestic urgency: "We had shock and awe. ... We destroyed their country, and now we're spending our time rebuilding that country when our country needs rebuilding. ... Memphis has places like New Orleans. They just haven't been exposed by the awful hurricane that New Orleans suffered."
There are two kinds of people, Cohen said. "There's one kind, the ruling class, that sends people to war and another kind that goes to war, and the kind that sends people to war don't seem to think about it or see and hear those people."
The veteran state senator also made proposals for an uncompromising ethics code at the federal level and denounced both the Patriot Act and a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage as doing damage to the Constitution.
There were times Monday night when Jake Ford seemed the self-assured, even eloquent candidate who, in the preceding several days, had deftly fielded questions during a radio interview with friendly host Jennings Bernard and then later had seemed both knowledgeable and compassionate at a public seminar on health care.
He had even sounded worldly-wise, as he periodically did Monday night. Answering a question about ethics reform, Ford said, "As we all know, we live in a system that operates under capitalism. People are always going to find a way to advance their agenda."
And Ford's opening and closing remarks were fluent enough. It's what came in between that was problematic. Here and there he was admirably to the point -- expressing support for civil unions, for example, and for a timetable for extricating American forces from Iraq.
What was most dumbfounding about his performance Monday night was not just that, on three separate occasions, he was forced to confess that he had no answer to the rather basic question being asked but that one of those questions concerned itself, in the most general possible sense, with Medicare -- a subject area clearly and directly related to things discussed in last week's health-care forum, when the candidates (excluding Cohen, who was being feted by Cybill Shepherd at a fund-raiser) had been presented the questions ahead of time.
Ford's response: "You would almost have to know a lot about the system itself, and at this time I do not have all of the answers here."
Though that was a non-answer to the question at hand, it seemed a possible answer to something various observers had been speculating on last week: Were Jake Ford's smooth performances on the radio and at the health-care forum dependent on his having foreknowledge of what he was going to be asked and time to prepare an answer?
In answer to another question Monday night, Ford said, "I don't know the solution right now. I don't have the answer right now. I want to go to Congress to learn." More than once, he deferred answering something, promising in apparent good faith to research an issue so as to come to grips with it later in the campaign.
Well and good, but it didn't square well with the candidate's answer as to why it was he chose to run as an independent rather than competing in the Democratic primary.
Ford's statement about that was complicated and hard to parse. If he hadn't done so, he said at one point, "I don't think this forum would even have been held." That was either a truism or an attempt at denying that several comprehensive forums were held during the primary season. Bottom line, one that was ironic under the circumstances: His independent candidacy presented "an opportunity to discuss the issues in an informed way."
The best-case scenario for Ford: He will have other opportunities to do so. His father, former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., was talking up his abilities over the weekend, making a case that his second son had been widely underestimated.
Meanwhile, Jake Ford's celebrated older brother, the congressman whose job he now seeks, Harold Ford Jr., was having a big-time week, surging ahead of Republican rival Bob Corker in a couple of mainstream polls taken on their U.S. Senate race and reportedly opening up a 46-to-39 gap in one of his own.
Tracking the congressman on Sunday, it was easy to see why. His first public appearance that day was at Centenary United Methodist Church, where he functioned as a de facto preacher, bringing a sermon on public stewardship that neatly walked the line between the secular and the divine, yet was rousing enough to draw frequent "Amen" choruses from the congregation.
Later in the day, Representative Ford presided over a well-attended, near-ecstatic rally at his headquarters, one in which he cited new polls showing his edge over Corker growing and noted that Newsweek magazine had elevated the Ford-Corker race to "number one" in the nation. The congressman invoked the spirit of Democratic solidarity, saying of Corker, "If you want somebody who votes with Bush all the time, then he's your man!"
At one point earlier Sunday, Ford had also dropped in on an NAACP forum that was being held at Mt. Olive CME Church for candidates in various races. Brother Jake was not there, but White and Cohen were, and the latter, in answer to a question, made a point of yoking it to his support for "my candidate for the U.S. Senate, Harold Ford Jr." Pointedly, the congressman did not respond in kind.
A question that has vexed any number of Democrats in the weeks since the August 3rd primary is this: What has prevented a joint embrace of support between Democratic nominees Cohen and Harold Ford Jr.?
Former Congressman Ford was candid about some of the reasons on Sunday. "What kind of father wouldn't support his own son?" he said at one point. At another, he acknowledged a further reason: Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's combination of public support for Cohen with derogatory remarks about Jake Ford and the Ford clan at large.
But, maintained the senior Ford in something of a revelation, he had, immediately after the primary, sent the victorious Cohen a message through Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, who would later join Herenton in a public endorsement ceremony for Cohen.
"I said let's all get together and do this thing," Ford said, evidently meaning a unity proclamation. "I gave it 36 hours, and I never heard anything back from Cohen." The implication was that the newly nominated Cohen had not answered the feeler by touching base with him.
For the record, Cohen -- who had gone so far on election night as to suggest that his defeat in the 1996 9th District race by Harold Ford Jr., "a great charismatic congressman," might have been a good thing -- denies having received any such communication.