Touting up some assets and liabilities



Last week we began what will be a continuing examination of the forthcoming U.S. Senate race of 9th District congressman Harold Ford.

In Ford’s case, as in that of his Democratic primary opponent, state Rep. Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, and in those of the several Republican hopefuls now in the field, we intend to look beyond and beneath the P.R. statements, position papers, and stump platitudes for a nitty-gritty look at the candidate’s persona and politics.

Promise: In all instances, you will get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. No spin, no kowtowing, and no shying away from either positives or negatives.

First, the good news for Ford: Despite the widely held belief of some, mainly local, observers that Ford’s race will be handicapped by (1) his race; and (2) bad publicity about his uncle, state Senator John Ford, my interviews and observations statewide over the years have not borne out that concern.

In 15 years of reporting state and local politics, I have yet to hear the first disparaging comment about Ford that is race-based -- even from the kind of thinly reconstructed types one might expect that from. And as Ed Cromer, the respected editor of the Nashville-based Tennessee Journal says, “I think that, even with the kind of bad publicity that John Ford is in for now, people will be able to distinguish between the nephew and the uncle.” As if to make doubly sure, the congressman has repeatedly made remarks distancing himself from his uncle (something, John Ford’s intimates say, that the currently beleaguered state senator isn’t crazy about.)

More good news: It is no secret that the congressman has proved a fascinating figure for much of the national and statewide media, and in his race he can expect the kind of lavish attention that was given the Senate races of candidates like Hillary Clinton in New York and Barack Obama in Illinois.

There’s bad news that comes with this good news, however: As we have noted, and as others are likely to discover, the congressman’s reactions to news coverage are sometimes impulsive and even, when he doesn’t like the facts reported, characterized by Kill-the-Messenger tendencies.

Two years ago, when another writer for this newspaper pointed out, accurately, that Ford’s local supporters were supporting state Rep. Kathryn Bowers, the eventual winner, for local Democratic chairman in a contested race, the congressman, looking ahead to his statewide race and no doubt galvanized by fear of party division, reacted swiftly and angrily. He repudiated the effort of his minions and made a point of endorsing then chairman Gal Jones Carson.

Complicating the issue was the fact that Carson doubled as press secretary for Mayor Willie Herenton, who has never been close to the Ford political clan.

Though Ford’s local supporters sucked it up and kept their peace publicly, several of them simmered privately and insisted that the congressman himself had initially signed off on their pro-Bowers efforts. One or two of them had serious words with Ford over the matter.

Ford’s composure under fire is sure to be tested in a Senate race. Rep. Kurita herself has a reputation for tenacious, even bare-knuckled campaigning, and, assuming Ford gets by her, he can surely expect some heavy weather from the eventual Republican nominee. As Cromer says, “No doubt about it. He’s never had to endure the kind of stressful opposition he can expect in a Senate race, and that could be a problem for him.”

Even Ford’s well-established celebrity glow could turn into a hindrance. Two recent items in Roll Call, the widely read Capitol Hill newsletter, began to highlight Ford’s private life. One called attention to his conspicuous presence at a lavish party thrown by Playboy Magazine during Super Bowl week. Another made fun of his penchant for regular pedicures.

Though he was briefly engaged some years ago, Ford does not have the kind of visible ties to a Significant Other that Tennesseans will see in the case of his various opponents. This fact might even help him with some younger voters, however.

One other potential obstacle for Ford: A number of state Democrats were unsettled by Ford’s protracted dawdling over a potential 2000 campaign for the Senate seat of Bill Frist -- the same one that Frist will vacate and Ford intends to seek next year. Still other Democrats were miffed by what they saw as the inattention of Ford, a national co-chair of John Kerry’s campaign, to the Democratic nominee’s race in Tennessee. One major-county liaison official communicated misgivings about Ford to the Kerry campaign at the highest level.

For all that, no one doubts that Rep. Ford, an undeniably dynamic figure, is likely to energize the Tennessee Democratic base in ways beyond the ability of the party’s Senate nominees for well more than a decade. And this, too, will be spoken to here. Stay tuned.

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