Center Stage 

Everybody's watching the Ford-Corker race. Could it change the national balance of power? And what will happen in the 9th District?

"Can a bright young charismatic African American overcome racial bigotry and his family history to win a pivotal state for the Democrats in November?"

That remark is in quotes because it, or sentiments tantamount to it, underlie the unvarying storyline of virtually every analysis of the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee -- of which there have been almost too many to count: Last week's cover story in Newsweek. A four-page spread in Time before that. Long takes in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today. Daily coverage on the cable news networks. CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS. Larry King. Chris Matthews. Anybody. Everybody ...

And let me not be bashful: The sentence quoted above is one that I proposed, as far back as two years ago, would be the unchanging be-all and end-all of national media attention to Harold Ford Jr.'s race.

Here was another prediction from back then that also holds up well: "You will never have seen, nobody will ever have seen, a statewide candidate, in this or any other state, ever, get the non-stop bombardment of favorable, idolatrous treatment from the media that Harold Ford Jr. will receive in his race for Senate."

Those predictions fall short of today's reality only in that Ford, scion of a venerable African-American political clan in Memphis, seems largely to have escaped being yoked to the nether side of the aforesaid family history, which includes (along with an acknowledged high side of achievement) indictments of various principals, notably Uncle John Ford, the state senator now retired and facing trial for bribery and extortion in the ongoing Tennessee Waltz scandal.

Representative Ford, who inherited his House seat from his father 10 years ago, has escaped such comparisons for a variety of reasons, including his own presumed squeaky-cleanness in matters of legislative probity. But the ultimate reason is the same as that which has made the 36-year-old Memphis congressman such a national cynosure.

His race as the Democratic nominee against Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, is important because its outcome, as so many have noted, could determine which party controls the Senate in the next Congress. But a basic, underlying reason why Ford has commanded so much attention is the same as that which resulted in a politically inexperienced Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as governor of California.

In a word (two words, actually): star power. Even political enemies concede that Ford has it. Hence the attempts at disparagement in Republican attack ads: "Well, he does look good on TV!"

Ford has proved something of a moving target for Republican potshots, however. His political profile, especially over the two- or three-year run-up to his Senate race, has seen him cast so many right-of-center votes -- on Terri Schiavo, on the GOP-inspired bankruptcy bill, on extending the Bush administration's tax cuts, on authorizing the war in Iraq, on approving the so-called torture bill, etc., etc. -- that various organized groups of hard-core Democrats (influential, especially on the blogosphere, but probably marginal numerically) find themselves hard-pressed to give Ford their vote.

And, for all his newly gained celebrity, nobody really knows to what extent Ford's decisions have been tactical -- designed to gain acceptance in "red-state" Tennessee -- or matters of conviction.

Whatever the case, even his political profile, such as it is, has proved subordinate to issues of personality. It is no accident that theatrical issues per se have dominated the campaign of late -- beginning with Ford's now-famous "airport ambush" of a Corker press conference (intended to target allegedly questionable ethics on the part of former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., the candidate's father, now a well-paid health-care lobbyist).

That was followed by an enduring controversy over an ad produced by the Republican National Convention that featured a leering young woman, who happens to be white, inviting the congressman to "call me." The critical consensus, right or wrong, has inferred "racism" at the core of the ad, and that characterization has, for better or for worse, dominated recent reportage on the campaign.

Give Ford this: When asked last weekend about the bimbo ad on Fox News Sunday, Ford was honest enough to respond, "No, I think it was smut. I don't think race had anything to do with that ad."

That did not prevent the legions of national media pundits from conducting endless smug discussions on the theme -- increasingly taken for granted -- that the ad was racist. It did not even prevent so renowned a political analyst as CNN's Jeff Greenfield from wrongly attributing to Ford himself the original claim that the commercial was racially based.

click to enlarge AP PHOTO

Nor, less forgivably, did it deter such wild responses as that from Vanity Fair writer and blogger James Wolcott. "Bob Corker is gay," Wolcott opined, tongue presumably in cheek. "He may not know it yet, he may never know it, he may go to his sarcophagus wrapped in denial, but his fascination with Ford's prowess and good looks gives him away, as does his political affiliation."

Never mind that Corker, married with two daughters, had seen the RNC product before it went into general circulation, promptly disowned it, and insisted it be taken down. Never mind that the ad was clearly in a series with several others that had attempted to attack not the Democrat's race but his alleged taste for bright lights and fine living.

Never mind, too, that Willie Herenton, Memphis' first elected black mayor, had mused out loud and enviously only the week before: "Ford's light enough that he can go in there and be accepted by those folks. I'm realistic enough to know that I wouldn't have a chance. I'm just too dark."

Indeed, it is a truism that Ford's appeal transcends race. To be sure, he can expect an enormous, virtually unanimous vote from the African-American precincts in hometown Memphis and in the state's other urban centers (even Chattanooga, home base of his GOP adversary). But one need only observe the crowds at racially heterogeneous Ford rallies to see how strongly he affects another vital constituency: young white professionals.

Ford moves as easily in such company as he famously does amongst his partisan opposite numbers in the House of Representatives. For years he has made a point of boasting his personal relationships among hard-core Republican types like Bob Barr, the former congressman from suburban Atlanta who was the first voice demanding impeachment of Bill Clinton back in the late 1990s.

To journalists covering politics in 2006, Pennsylvania's Republican senator Rick Santorum -- he of "man-on-dog sex" fame for a notorious moralistic outburst -- is the likely sad-sack victim of this year's expected Democratic tide. To Ford, however, Santorum is a prized co-sponsor of the Memphis congressman's bill to provide investment grants to indigent newborns -- bragged about at every public opportunity.

If there is nothing new in Ford's coziness with his counterparts across the ideological aisle, what has many observers buffaloed is the revelation of a hitherto unsuspected religious side to the congressman.

It was signaled indelibly on several occasions during the campaign year -- when Ford stepped up to the pulpit and preached a sermon at one inner-city church, when he taped a striking commercial in the sanctuary of another, when in all three televised debates and in countless TV interviews he was seen to bob his head upward and point toward heaven, pro-athlete style, and -- most extraordinary of all -- in this statement made this past weekend during his interview with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace.

Wallace, clearly smitten with the purported conservatism and media bling of the candidate, asked what voters might expect from Ford as a senator.

Without blinking, Ford stared into the camera and said, "What Tennesseans will get is a Jesus-loving, gun-supporting believer that family should come first, that taxes should be lowered, and that America should be strong. When Tennesseans send us to the Senate, that's what they'll get in my votes, and that's what they'll get in the kind of leadership that we have not had in the Senate over the last six years."

Jesus-loving? However that might play in the boons where, this generation's clutch of nattering nabobs notwithstanding, Ford was a clear hit -- or at worst an attractive novelty -- it could hardly bring joy to the previously quite supportive Jewish communities of Tennessee, especially not after a now notorious speech delivered by Ford Sr. last month. Addressing a Saturday afternoon rally for his son's Senate campaign on Summer Avenue, the former congressman abruptly segued into a denunciation of 9th District Democratic nominee Steve Cohen, against whom another son, Jake Ford, was running as an independent.

"We're from a Christian city here," thundered Ford Sr. "He [Jake Ford] doesn't believe in legalizing marijuana. This man that's running against Jake wants some sex shops running in downtown Memphis on a Sunday! That's our religious holiday."

The week after news of that got out, a prominent Memphis businessman, one of Harold Ford Jr.'s main financial backers, went to participate in early voting. "I couldn't bring myself to vote in the Senate race," he later confided. He went a step further, writing and dispatching a letter to a number of other well-known donors and politically interested individuals, advising them of his own action and the reason for it: the introduction into Ford's race of what sounded to him like a militant and exclusive brand of Christianity.

Other Democrats looked at the phenomenon differently, seeing it as an extraordinary effort to steal the faith issue back from years of proprietary GOP ownership.

The polls in the Senate race -- Zogby, Rasmussen, Mason-Dixon et al. -- have been little help to the ever-widening audience watching the Ford-Corker contest. They have fluctuated wildly of late but mainly within a five-point margin of error, showing first one and then the other candidate in the lead. And it was often difficult to pinpoint the reasons for a shift. When, sometime in September, all the polls showed Ford to have closed what had been Corker's double-digit lead after the August 3rd party primaries, that was easy enough to understand.

Corker had blown away GOP opponents Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, largely through a series of well-done TV commercials that showcased him as a likable family man and successful entrepreneur with a solid record of achievement as mayor of Chattanooga. But a major difference between that race, in which his opponents were financially handicapped, and Corker's general election encounter with Ford was that the Democrat would be formidably equipped -- both from state and national party sources and from Ford's own undeniable ability to raise big money, much of it from out of state.

Republicans tried to make much of that latter fact, contrasting Ford's "New York" and "Hollywood" connections with the down-home "Tennessee life" of Bob Corker. At times that approach, in Corker's later ads and in his stump rhetoric, seemed to resonate with voters. The problem was that he inexplicably forgot about it during a six-week period in August and September.

That was when the Corker campaign appeared to be channeling the RNC's standardized attack mode, with "cookie cutter" ads that unimaginatively, even drearily, attempted to portray Ford as a "liberal," as if a mere code word, especially one that had long since ceased to typify Ford, if it ever had, could win the campaign.

Meanwhile, Ford and the Democratic National Committee had launched their own series of ads, equally attack-minded and no doubt as one-sided and unfair as Corker's were. (Could anyone seriously believe, as several of the Ford/DNC ads alleged, that mega-millionaire Corker, who made his fortune as a pioneer in providing low-income housing, would bother to swindle the taxpayers of Chattanooga out of three measly mayoral pay raises?)

The difference was that Ford inhabited his ads, with a smooth, fluent, and compelling presence that any professional actor might envy. Corker's advantage soon melted away -- precipitating an internal campaign crisis that resulted in the dispatching of youthful campaign manager Ben Mitchell, who was replaced (reportedly at high-level insistence from the state and national GOP) by seasoned vet Tom Ingram.

Mitchell was probably something of a scapegoat. It was widely rumored, in fact, that a cautious and penurious Corker himself had dictated the shape of campaign strategy prior to the Ingram takeover.

In any case, Corker got back on an even keel, with new ads, better produced and more precisely focused. The more effective ones were homey and personal, featuring straight-from-the-shoulder homilies from the candidate himself and cameos by family members.

Other ads were more aggressive, aimed at the suspected seam between Ford's newly unveiled religiosity and a more glittery private life. (In that vein also was the ill-starred RNC's "bimbo" ad mentioned before.)

Ford Sr., both a behind-the-scenes adviser in the Senate race and a formidable analyst of it, was probably correct in suggesting that, early on, Corker relied too much on the national Republican apparatus. Two fund-raising visits by President Bush, with declining poll ratings, offered minimal coattails for Corker, at best. And, in an environment of general time-for-a-change disenchantment among voters, the GOP candidate's parroted invocations of a low-tax, national-security, socially conservative formula seemed to be getting him minimal traction.

What began to come through for Corker was the image of a homegrown product who had schooled in the state, developed a business here, and maintained close connections across Tennessee.

Though the diminutive Corker lacks the sui generis star quality of Ford, he communicates a genuine personal warmth at close range. A case in point: As an attendee at Shelby County trustee Bob Patterson's annual Christmas party last year, Corker made a point of sitting in a chair and spending the better part of an hour with an arthritis-afflicted lady, answering all her questions and eschewing during that time the opportunity to work Patterson's teeming crowd of influential party-goers.

The Chattanoogan does give good one-on-one (as does Ford, for that matter). And his early reluctance concerning more public forms of give-and-take (he famously turned down an opportunity to debate Ford on NBC's Meet the Press) eventually dissolved as he became more comfortable with the hurly-burly of statewide campaigning.

Addressing a lunchtime throng at Logan's Bar-B-Q in Humboldt, in mid-October, Corker seemed to surprise even himself with a leather-lunged exhortation of his "Tennessee Life" saga that drew hearty roars from what looked to be a working-class audience.

And Corker seemed to be holding his own against Ford in the three televised statewide debates -- strange affairs in one sense, given that the candidates disagreed on very little, both coming off as right-of-center types with fuzzed positions on issues like abortion (who was and who wasn't pro-life, and to what extent?), Social Security, and medical tort reform.

As momentum switched from side to side, it even remained possible, as the end approached, that a race which had become something of a national spectacle could be inflected by a more local one -- the race to succeed Ford in Memphis' 9th congressional district.


The Battle for the Ninth

If Harold Ford Jr. seemed destined to have become a national figure, so, too, had the winner of the 15-strong Democratic primary to succeed him, state senator Steve Cohen of a largely Midtown Memphis district.

Brash and sometimes even obstreperous, Cohen was nevertheless widely admired for his off-setting wit and for his distinguished 24-year service in the Senate, during which he largely brought into being the state lottery, championed the arts and animal rights, and was the go-to guy for any measure affecting the rights of women. Sometimes overlooked by those who saw him as a pure liberal was his sponsorship of gun-carry measures and strong defense of Second Amendment rights, legacies from his former service as legal adviser to the Memphis Police Department.

Cohen was defeated in a bid for Congress in 1996, losing to Ford Jr. in what was essentially a mismatch due to the district's majority African-Americans status and the still-effective machinery of the Ford organization.

The circumstances of the 2006 Democratic primary favored him, however. With a significant black following of his own (he polled nearly 20 percent of the African-American vote), Cohen easily out-pointed the other members of the large primary field, most of them black and many of them possessing their own constituencies.

Going into the general election, Cohen had the backing of Memphis mayor Herenton and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, as well as numerous other influential black public figures. He also had endorsements from most of his erstwhile primary foes. But he did not have the endorsement of Representative Ford himself, who kept a public silence on the race while his brother Jake Ford, running as an independent, made the general election race a three-cornered affair with Cohen and Republican nominee Mark White.

In many ways, Jake Ford, an unknown quantity, was much smoother than most people expected from someone without much of a pedigree other than the admittedly powerful one of his family name. There were times during the several general-election debates and forums when he suggested something of the glibness and mental grasp of his famous older brother and, for that matter, of his father, whose sporadic eloquence was as much a foundation of his power as his adept management of the once-legendary Ford political machine.

But there were disturbing episodes as well -- suggesting that there may have been good reasons for his long years of relative anonymity. (Something of the same seemed to apply also to Aunt Ophelia Ford, inexplicably a no-show for most of the campaign season during her return engagement with Republican Terry Roland for the state Senate District 29 seat -- one that she lost when apparent vote irregularities caused the Senate to void her 2005 special-election victory.)

At one point, Jake Ford was compelled to call a press conference to acknowledge several arrests during his late youth and early manhood, including one for assaulting his father.

And there was the League of Women Voters debate, at which Jake Ford came up short in his answers to several basic-sounding questions, not even hazarding an answer and pledging instead to be a "good learner" if elected to Congress. There was the Jekyll-Hyde edge to his personality -- one that saw him shift, suddenly and unpredictably, from polish and poise, even grace, to a menacing belligerence.

He and his younger brother Isaac and a mystery aide all figured in various reports of real and attempted intimidation. Cousin Joe Ford Jr., one of several former primary opponents who endorsed Cohen, felt compelled to call out the aide, identified only as "Tyrone" on the Remixx World! blog, charging the aide with sinister threats of payback on the "street."

White, for his part, came off well if somewhat indistinctly, stressing his success as an entrepreneur, his former experience as a teacher, and professing what seemed sincerely to be an interest in the problems of the inner city. He took that concern to the point of chiding President Bush during his touchdown in Memphis on Corker's behalf, urging the president to accompany him on a tour of the more challenged neighborhoods of Memphis and saying, "I can't imagine why he [Bush] won't follow me!"

The Republican's hopes were twofold -- that he could stave off attrition of his Republican base in Cohen's direction and that he could make inroads into the black community, particularly the religiously devout portion of it, largely on the strength of what he considered shared moral values. That part of his strategy took a less high-minded detour, though, as both he and campaign manager Howie Morgan began intensifying attacks on Cohen through press releases and mailers that suggested the Democrat favored gay marriage and legalizing marijuana.

Cohen had been forced to deny both allegations already by opponent Ford, who also made several statements that seemed to suggest that bachelor Cohen, known far and wide for his involvements with various attractive women over the years, might be gay.

For all that, Cohen seemed to be maintaining his lead -- although the various mechanics of that race, including what was expected to be a massive voter turnout for Representative Ford's Senate bid, made any precise forecast unpredictable.

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