Making Their Moves 

Corker views with alarm and points with pride; Cohen comes out swinging.

Bob Corker (center) at a recent meeting in Memphis for a "business roundtable" at Regions Bank.

Jackson Baker

Bob Corker (center) at a recent meeting in Memphis for a "business roundtable" at Regions Bank.

Officially, Bob Corker is just one of 17 U.S. Senate candidates who will appear on the Tennessee ballot this year. He is opposed by four other Republicans, including two certifiable Tea Party candidates, by seven Democrats, and by five Independents.

The sheer volume of opponents venturing to file against an incumbent would normally indicate that the officeholder in question is vulnerable. But Corker is regarded as a solid — nay, a prohibitive — favorite against any of his would-be challengers, all of whom, in the strict sense, are no-names.

To be sure, one of Corker's GOP primary challengers is one Mark Twain Clemens, a Bedford Countian who owns a name that evokes literary grandeur, if not political viability. And one of the Democrats vying for a chance to tangle with the senator is Park Overall, a resident of Greenville in eastern-most Tennessee who had some modest celebrity a generation back as a featured player on the TV sitcom Empty Nest.

In early 2011, the website, a Tea Party organ, put Corker high up on its hit list. But several polls taken last year indicated convincingly that the big names, those with some political standing and at least a theoretical chance to beat Corker, wouldn't come close.

That included, on the Democratic side, Harold Ford Jr., the former Memphis congressman who, as the Democratic nominee in 2006, ran Corker almost 50-50 in losing. Ford has since become a New York resident and would poll no higher than 28 percent in a theoretical matchup against Corker. On the Republican side, 7th District congresswoman Marsha Blackburn polled as high as 30 percent. Everybody else was way out of the running.

Part of Corker's seeming invulnerability in 2012 is the fact of incumbency, though incumbency by itself hasn't saved any number of other established senators, including the venerable Richard Lugar of Indiana, who recently lost a GOP primary to a Tea Party challenger. Being a Republican in a state that continues in what would seem an irreversible swing in that direction is another help.

But Corker himself sees his relatively comfortable status as owing to a willingness to cooperate across the political aisle ("I've never employed partisan rhetoric, and I never intend to") and just keeping his nose to the grindstone ("What I've said all along is, my campaign is going to be my service in the Senate").

Another contributing factor, no doubt, is that he was an early advocate of the currently modish theory, at least among Republicans, that spending, in and of itself, is issue number one for Congress.

The senator was in Memphis last Friday for an appearance at a "business roundtable" luncheon at Regions Bank on Poplar.

Addressing a roomful of bankers and other business leaders for the better part of an hour, Corker focused on "this fiscal issue," which he said remained the biggest problem facing the United States. He ran through the familiar facts and figures — sluggish job numbers, intractable unemployment, corporate earnings diminished just enough to discourage research and development, and the possibly contagious economic problems of Europe.

If Congress continues to "kick the can" down the road and avoid trying to resolve these problems, the consequence would be to commit the "greatest generational theft in history" against future generations, Corker said.

But then he went upbeat. "We have total control of our fiscal situation. I absolutely believe the solution is to link pro-growth tax reform with long-term entitlement reform. ... I'm convinced that confidence would return to this country."

Moreover, he said, he detected similar thinking elsewhere in Congress, among Democrats as well as Republicans. He cited a recent broadcast by Steny Hoyer, the Maryland congressman who was House majority leader until the Democrats lost control of that chamber after the 2010 elections and now serves as minority whip.

"He had the same message," Corker said. "I'm convinced that, on both sides of the aisle, we're getting ready to deal with things."

He cautioned, however, that, politics being politics, such realistic policy making might be put on hold for the duration of the election year and that, on certain matters, like keeping the faith on last year's bargain to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis by enforcing caps on discretionary spending, "neither Republicans nor Democrats can be trusted."

Besides his high-profile advocacy of economic austerity programs, Corker has a vested interest in foreign policy matters. A member of the Senate foreign relations committee, he has long been skeptical about the nation's commitment to military adventures abroad.

Asked about the imminent end of combat operations in Afghanistan, Corker said, "It's been a concern to me. I've been there three times, and I've known we had to diminish our footprint." He also expressed caution about getting involved in Syria, which is currently undergoing civil conflict. "We've gotta be careful. There are known terrorists in the opposition group. I'm slower than most to jump on the bandwagon of intervention."

• Formally opening his newest campaign headquarters on Union Avenue Saturday, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen cast himself not only as a candidate for reelection but, in both subtle and overt ways, as an organizing figure in local Democratic politics.

"We want to have a ballot this year that takes the best people into office," Cohen said, in words that echoed the longtime practice of one of his predecessors, former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., who published sample ballots at election time indicating his preferences for various positions.

In the manner of the senior congressman Ford, Cohen indicated he would not shy away from taking sides in a Democratic primary, and he did just that with respect to the race between his longtime friend and ally, state senator Beverly Marrero, and another incumbent Democratic senator, Jim Kyle, currently the leader of the state Senate's Democrats.

Cohen described Marrero as "my good friend, my successor, the lady who stands up when people need to stand up, the person with courage, the person with the right voice for the city of Memphis and for Senate District 30," while he referred to Kyle, a longtime party rival, as someone "who in redistricting took Senate District 30 and made it into something different."

Staying with that theme, Cohen in effect continued to lay claim to those East Memphis portions of his district which were reassigned by the legislature's Republican majority to the 8th District, where GOP congressman Stephen Fincher now holds sway.

"They took a lot of my constituents, whom I've served for many years, out of my district," Cohen said.

"I'm going to continue to represent those people, because they need help, and I'm going to continue to be their voice, because they need a voice in Congress, and they're not going to have one in Congress from the state of Tennessee other than me."

Simultaneously, he welcomed "the people of Cordova and Frayser and Millington who've been added to the district."

Of his own reelection campaign, in which he has Tomeka Hart as a Democratic primary opponent, Cohen focused on the likely Republican nominee in the 9th District race, former Shelby County commissioner George Flinn, the wealthy radiologist and broadcast magnate who, as Cohen noted, has waged unsuccessful races in the past for county mayor, city council, and Congress.

"We've got a primary, but the enemy is the Republicans, and we've got a self-funder that'll be running against me in the fall. ... He's going to spend a lot of money, so we're going to spend some money, too, and we'll do everything we can to see that this is his worst defeat."

Noting that suburban referenda for municipal school districts will occur on August 2nd and draw out Republicans, Cohen also urged his listeners to come to the support of countywide Democratic candidates Ed Stanton and Cheyenne Johnson, who are running to continue as general sessions clerk and assessor, respectively.

And Cohen looked beyond the races on the local ballot.

Referring to a recent Department of Justice study showing a variety of problems at juvenile court, Cohen conferred a plug on Veronica Coleman, a onetime candidate for juvenile court clerk, as someone who could help remedy the situation there.

He said, too, that, despite having the burden of reelection himself, he was "still going to do national campaign work for President Obama," and he viewed with concern the prospect that a President Mitt Romney could make appointments to the Supreme Court.

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