Debates Double Up: Ford vs. Corker; Cohen vs. Ford vs. White 

With two critical political debates occurring at the same hour on local television Saturday night – and with the Tennessee Volunteers playing South Carolina simultaneously – it would be strange indeed if local electronics dealers didn’t experience a run on their TiVo inventories.

On WREG-TV, News Channel 3, Memphis and Shelby County viewers could watch a live feed of the U.S. Senate debate between former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, the Republican, and U,S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. the Democrat. Over on WMC-TV, Action News 5, the three candidates for Rep. Ford’s 9th District congressional seat – Democrat Steve Cohen, Republican Mark White, and independent Jake Ford – were having at it.

Both events, unfortunately, were being telecast during the 7p.m.-8 p.m. time slot.

And, although some initial reviews suggested fewer fireworks than usual, both encounters had their fair share for the attentive viewer. Messrs. Ford and Cohen, tangled at LeMoyne-Owen College over the issue of a Ford dynasty – with Cohen quipping, “I know Harold Ford Sr. I know Harold Ford Jr. And Mr. [Jake] Ford is no Harold Ford Sr. or Harold Ford Jr.” Candidate Ford took his own shot later on, accusing Cohen of having smoked marijuana with members of the news media.

For his part, White seemed intent on playing the same “independent” game as Ford, fuzzing political lines with a statement acknowledging that he had been critical of President Bush and suggesting that a congressman’s first loyalty was to “community,” not political party. (Speaking of lines, he also drew “a line in the sand” on the issue of same-sex marriage, saying that “my God” forbade his accepting it, while both Ford and Cohen professed openness to civil-union procedures while distancing themselves from gay marriage per se.)

Signalling what appears to be a new attack strategy aimed at Cohen, White's campaign manager, Howie Morgan, emailed several press releases after Saturday's debate, aimed at underscoring Cohen's reputed past experience with marijuana, his alleged prickliness as a state senator, and his purported support for gay marriage. The strategy coincided with favorable remarks made about Cohen last week by GOP chairman Bill Giannini and may be designed to halt attrition of White's votes in Cohen's favor.

The Senate debate, at Vanderbilt University, was notable for Rep. Ford’s efforts, more pronounced than usual, to get to the right of Republican Corker -- particularly when he pledged himself to lower taxes while accusing his opponent of having raised taxes three times during his tenure as Chattanooga mayor.

Ford appeared to conflate Corker's service as state finance commissioner in the mid-90s with former Governor Don Sundquist's later income-tax proposals. Corker responded by reminding Ford that his mservice in the Sundquist administration had ended prior to that point, during Sundquist's first term.

The candidates converged at the center on most issues, requiring some close between-the-lines scrutiny on occasion, as when Corker distanced himself from the concept of private Social Security accounts but allowed as how “later,” when the system’s solvency was assured for time to come, they might be re-examined.

Similarly, Ford appeared to be advocating means-testing for Social Security recipients without exactly saying so. His formula involved distributing benefits “first to the people who need it most.”

Surprisingly, the Memphis congressman also declined a specific answer when asked about recent ads against him by the Corker campaign and the Republican National Committee. As if to offset the image of himself as a playboy in one of the most discussed attack ads, the oft-discussed "bimbo" ad, the 36-year-old Ford took pains to address several audience questioners in their ‘20s as “young fellow.”

Appearing the next day on Fox News Sunday, Ford followed up the issue by saying that the ad didn’t seem to him to be racially inspired but was “smut,” unsuitable for the “family values” of Tennessee TV audiences.

He elaborated on what a Senate victory by him would mean: “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."

-- Jackson Baker



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