Ford-Corker Debate: Game One Is Close, but No Cigar (Yet) 

 

Well, the first televised senatorial debate is in the can, and while both candidates – Democrat Harold Ford and Republican Bob Corker – continued to hew to the same centrist (or mildly rightist) themes during their statewide TV broadcast from WREG-TV, News Channel 3, it was arguably possible to choose between them on style points.

   

Keeping in mind that Corker, by virtue of a clearly overdue staff shakeup, had just stabilized what had been a longish and disastrous decline in the polls (and was lucky to come into this event more or less even), it was incumbent on him to do something other than play a Prevent Defense.  He seemed to be trying not to lose rather than to win, however, and that’s how football teams get hit with the game-changing bomb.

   

The case for Corker’s playing it that way was made in an after-debate conversation by Knoxville radio reporter Halloran Hill, who suggested, perhaps correctly, that the former Chattanooga mayor just wanted to get safely through this first encounter on Memphian Ford’s home turf and save his real game for a later debate in Middle Tennessee, where a good performance might put him over the top.

  Maybe, although that assumes Corker can keep it close until then, and on the strength of Ford’s energetic performance Saturday night, that can’t be assumed.

   

Ford was having a fine time exhibiting his performance skills – a little too fine in that once in a while his adrenaline seemed to be getting the best of him. His penchant for flip asides, delivered via casual moves on and off his stool, reminded one viewer of Bill Clinton. I myself thought of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate  -- although the then Massachusetts senator was a much more controlled, less hyper presence back in September of 1960.

   

Strictly speaking, Corker was on point and poised enough not to be Nixon, but the Memphis congressman arguably gained the same kind of semiotic points as had Kennedy. If he was over-active and glib, that was merely the boil-over of a very self-assured presence – the same one the state’s viewers have seen over and over in Ford’s TV ads, most of them stressing themes of national security and patriotism – de facto rebuttals of those “Ford’s-a-liberal” attack ads, RNC clones by the look of them, that made the mistake of not featuring Corker himself and were mean-spirited, besides.

   

Parenthesis: Now that new campaign regime headed by veteran operative Tom Ingram has yanked those ads and put up new ones featuring a reprise of Corker’s loveable mom, the former Chattanooga mayor’s adoring townsfolk and a laid-back competent-looking Corker himself, why not go a step further and feature Elizabeth Corker, the candidate’s stunning wife? In a contest of personalities, hottie bachelor Ford has a built-in edge; add the surrounding context of a conventional family, and the advantage shifts to Corker.

   

Speaking of which: In a year in which three members of the extended Ford political family are on the local ballot, the Chattanoogan took a shot Saturday night at the “Ford political dynasty,” one which Rep. Ford rebutted, as is his wont, by the kind of “I-love-my family” response that, artfully and simultaneously, establishes distance between the congressman and his kindred.

   

In any case, patriotism and a political open-mindedness were the two attitudes both candidates chose to feature in their responses to questions Saturday night.  (Ford's emphasis went to the point that, when asked later on whether, since he repeatedly eschewed the label "liberal," he considered himself a "conservative," he answered, "I consider myself a patriot.")

The two candidates agreed on: a supportive but skeptical attitude toward the Iraq war, approval of an amendment to define marriage as heterosexual, concern about Iran; a need to control immigration; even, surprisingly, on issues like tort reform (which Ford seemingly did not dismiss) and Social Security privatization (which Corker did seemingly dismiss).

   

Each man accused the other of “flip-flopping” on issues, while each also boasted of his own mature willingness to change his mind.

 

Ironically, given his aversion to the label, Ford displayed a modest tactical edge in the more liberal way he interpreted questions. Asked about Iraq, the Democrat plausibly embroidered his response to include the issue of neighboring Iran. Playing the strict constructionist, Corker objected that Iraq was the subject, giving Ford the opportunity to point out, among other links, the Shiite loyalties that overlapped the two countries.

Similarly, when a young woman in the studio audience asked Corker how he would amend "inequities" (presumably racial ones) in the state's educational stucture, a baffled Corker said there were none. In the week that the longstanding Geier suit, the last lingering challenge to such formal inequities statewide, had been settled, that may have been true, but Ford began his response, "I know what you mean," and launched into an unrelated proposal for a work-study program.

 

What stood out amidst the jibes and counter-jibes was Ford’s reliance on religious rhetoric – a theme established early by the congressman’s insistence on “putting God first” and which continued even into the post-debate interview sessions, in which Ford answered a question about how, as senator, he would seek to help Memphis’ fire-damaged downtown by suggesting as a first step his attendance at a scheduled public prayer meeting on ‘Sunday morning.

   

Corker afterward declined to comment on that aspect of Ford’s performance, but he allowed himself some sarcasm about his opponent’s campaigning “like Ronald Reagan.” That led him to suggest that the people of Shelby County must be “schizophrenic” trying to keep up with Ford’s political changes. Apprised of that, Ford chastised the Chattanoogan for using such an epithet to describe his home folks…

    

Hey, it being the playoff season, let’s switch to a baseball metaphor: a 3-hitter for Ford vs. a 6-hitter for Corker, the kind of game that gives one team a one-run lead.

   

In any case, regardless of who is adjudged the winner of this first encounter, it’s merely the first one in a series. More to come.

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