Politics » Politics Feature

Tightening Up

With a month to go, the Ford-Corker Senate race settles into a dead heat.



The difference between GOP senatorial nominee Bob Corker and his Republican primary opponents, Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, was in the quality and frequency of his advertising vis-à-vis theirs. For a solid month, Corker, a self-made multi-millionaire with healthy backing from his party's establishment, was able to introduce himself to the state's TV viewers as an accomplished mayor, an adroit businessman, and a friendly, somewhat countrified fellow with an extra-nice mom.

Poor Bryant and Hilleary, both running unimaginative and negative campaigns, might not have been able to compete even with equivalent financing, but the fact is, they didn't have enough campaign money to counter the television onslaught, and they fell steadily behind. Ironically, their last chance came in the last two weeks of the campaign when, for reasons yet to be explained, Corker (who was well ahead in the polls at the time) took to attacking his opponents with advertising that was not only negative but demonstrably misleading.

Bryant and Hilleary counter-attacked, pointing out that neutral observers expressly belied the content of Corker's attacks and considered them unfair. They lost anyhow, but with another month and another million apiece, the two hapless ex-congressmen might have been able to make up some ground.

The experience is relevant to what has happened to Corker in his current campaign against Democrat Harold Ford Jr.

For several weeks, as the general-election effort against Ford got under way, the former Chattanooga mayor ran TV commercials virtually nonstop -- but not the sort he had used to establish himself as a likable, trustworthy figure in the primary. Rather, he filled the airwaves with negative attack ads, like his last ones against Bryant and Hillary.

It was almost as though he had established a groove -- a rut, rather -- and couldn't get out of it. Worse, Corker himself didn't figure in any of them except as a late-appearing figure whose voice-over, in accordance with Federal Election Commission regulations, "approved" the ads. Worse yet, the ads were as misleading as those against Bryant and Hilleary had been. Worst of all, his new opponent, Ford, had the money to compete with him on the airwaves.

Ford was in the attack mode, too, and his own ads were no model of fairness or accuracy, either. But he was in them, an undeniably telegenic and persuasive presence, and that set him apart from his opponent. Corker's early lead evaporated, and Ford caught up and began to race ahead.

But wait! In the last week or two, there was Corker with his doting cutie-pie mom again, and here comes another commercial featuring the Bobster himself, talking regular-folks-common-sense talk about those blowhards in government and how a straight-arrow businessman like himself could straighten out all the stuff they've got wrong.

This reversion to best-foot-forward politics is the apparent result of a shakeup in the Corker campaign. Tom Ingram, a veteran operative who has been serving as Senator Lamar Alexander's chief of staff, is the new campaign manager, taking over from Ben Mitchell, and the new ad strategy is first fruit of that change.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the bleeding in the Corker campaign seems to have been stanched, and now he and Ford are now trading leads in this or that poll.

Undeniably, Ford has momentum -- the result of his star quality and campaigning skills as well as what could turn out to be a national buyers' remorse reaction to the Bush administration.

But, though the fact seems to have escaped most observers in the national media, Ford has critics within his own party -- most of them on the left, to be sure, and not nearly as numerous as his detractors imagine but, arguably, influential beyond their numbers and, inarguably, out of love with their party's nominal standard-bearer.

The reason? What they see as Ford's apostasy from Democratic Party precepts. This includes his votes with the Republicans on such thematic/social issues as the flag-burning and marriage amendments and Congress' mandated medical review in the Terri Schiavo case, economic issues like the bankruptcy bill and extension of the Bush tax cuts, and a plethora of national-policy concerns, such as Ford's continuing support of the Iraq war effort and his go-along votes on a number of national-security issues.

Two of the latter occurred within the last week, as the Memphis congressman cast yea votes on two administration-backed bills -- one extending broad authority to the president to define torture as it applies to captured enemy aliens, the other granting the chief executive the power, in effect, to decree warrantless surveillance. On the former bill, Ford was one of 34 House Democrats to vote as he did, on the latter one of 18.

Especially given apparent popular disenchantment with the Iraq war and with President Bush's conduct of both it and the war on terror generally, Ford's actions reignited the always-simmering discontent among his hard-core Democratic critics, who consider Republican attack ads on Ford as too "liberal" to be somewhere between an unintentional irony and a bad joke.

Not to talk too far out of school, but several indisputably Republican and/or conservative sources acknowledge privately the possibility that Ford's increasingly conservative rhetoric may be more than election-year posturing.

Said one GOP loyalist and erstwhile Bryant supporter: "Harold Ford Jr. may be as conservative as it is possible for an African-American Democrat to be."

Tellingly, Ford's campaign paraphernalia does not feature the word "Democrat," and, in a campaign that has focused unusual attention on the longtime Republican preserve of East Tennessee, seems almost to have proscribed use of the word on the stump. Even in hometown Memphis, he told a headquarters crowd back in April, "I'm not a Democrat running up to Washington yelling 'Democrat, Democrat, Democrat.'"

Another issue -- mainly of concern to local Democrats but important enough to have attracted attention on the editorial page of the Nashville Tennessean -- concerns the current 9th District congressional trifecta, in which Democratic nominee Steve Cohen is opposed both by Republican nominee Mark White and by "independent" Jake Ford, the congressman's brother who says that, if elected, he would caucus with House Democrats.

But in a recent radio interview Jake Ford echoed his brother's political ecumenism somewhat. Noting that he was "running without a party affiliation," the younger Ford characterized his race as being "about people politics, not party politics," and he added, "All too often people want you to get wound up in the issues Democrats want you to hear about or Republicans want you to hear about. I just want to represent the people."

Representative Ford himself continues to maintain a neutral posture vis-à-vis Cohen and brother Jake. The congressman's hesitancy has permitted the flourishing of persistent rumors that the Ford brothers are operating their campaigns in concert. Other than the common support of both by proud papa Harold Ford Sr., there would seem to be little evidence for such an assumption.

An equally persistent rumor -- also unconfirmed and unlikely -- has it that Jake Ford's continued pursuit of the congressional seat might be, from the Ford clan's point of view, conditional and subject to negotiation.

In any case, Ford's Democratic critics cite Representative Ford's ambiguous attitude toward the three-way congressional race as yet another impediment to their acceptance of his own candidacy. A refrain has begun to recur in the posting of a hard corps of anti-Ford bloggers -- most of them in Shelby County but some also posting out of Nashville and elsewhere.

Why, Democratic skeptics in the blogosphere say, should we put aside our doubts and support Harold Ford Jr. as the party nominee when he won't do the same for Cohen?

Ford defenders among longtime Democratic partisans are increasingly advancing another question: What's the big deal on Ford's credentials? they ask. Worst-case scenario: that a Senator Harold Ford Jr. would be an old-fashioned Southern Democratic conservative of the sort people in these parts once took for granted. So?

Meanwhile, Republican White, apparently deciding to take a step away from GOP orthodoxy, chided the president for not responding to White's suggestion of a joint tour of inner-city Memphis during President Bush's fund-raising stopover here for Corker last week. "Why he will not follow me there is beyond me," said White, who is making a point of pitching for traditionally Democratic African-American votes.

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