New Arena, Old Issues 

Two Republican candidates cause concern in the GOP's establishment ranks.

"The contest is not over, the strife is not ended. It has only entered upon a new and enlarged arena." -- Jefferson Davis

That's the epigram affixed by gubernatorial candidate Carl "Two Feathers" Whitaker to his official campaign e-mails, and it provides a broad clue as to why it is that the state Republican establishment is antsy, to say the least, about Whitaker's candidacy for the GOP nomination and why it is that the Republican establishment is currently trying to prevail on one of its rising stars, state senator Jim Bryson of Franklin, to oppose Whitaker for the party nomination.

Whitaker, who claims partial Native American ancestry, is a leader of the Tennessee chapter of the Minutemen, a group that strenuously opposes illegal immigration, although Whitaker himself contended at a speech in Memphis last year that he welcomes legal immigrants.

Since Whitaker, formerly an independent, declared his candidacy early last year, both the party hierarchy and various rank-and-file cadres have made concerted efforts to find a respectable regular-party candidate to file for governor. The problem has been that Democratic incumbent Phil Bredesen is widely regarded as unbeatable, as most Republicans privately concede.

That being the case, both state representative Beth Harwell of Nashville, the former state party chair, and former state representative Jim Henry of Kingston proved unpersuadable when various leading Republicans implored them to run last year. Henry, who is recovering from cancer treatment, would have run but still hasn't quite gotten the go-ahead from his doctors, said state representative Frank Nicely, a Henry confidant, at the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference at The Peabody.

Bryson acknowledged earlier this year, while attending court hearings in Memphis concerning the contested District 2 state Senate race, that the push was on for somebody, likely a member of the Senate, to make the race. At the time, he was noncommital about his own possible candidacy. Technically, he remains so but has indicated of late that he's taking the prospect seriously.

Memphis lawyer John Ryder, a former national Republican committeeman from Tennessee and principal organizer of this month's SRLC meeting, acknowledged the possibility that the party might not be able to field a "viable" candidate for governor, but he said party esteem would not suffer if Whitaker should end up the nominee.

"He won't be able to raise much money nor to field a significant enough campaign," said Ryder, so that a "lopsided" outcome wouldn't carry the message that a serious defeat for a well-backed Republican candidate might. Ryder, who said he had been involved in past efforts to persuade Harwell to run, declined to express an opinion about Whitaker's political views. "I don't know enough about them," he said.

Ryder further denied having any information about a Whitaker claim that he had attempted to enroll in the SRLC conference but that his application had been, in the words of one local Whitaker supporter, "conveniently lost."

In a recent e-mail headed "Some Tennessee State Republicans Trying to Destroy Our  Party," Whitaker took note of Republican officials' disapproval of his candidacy, citing state party chairman Bob Davis' statement, "He can't win."

Said Whitaker: "I never knew that when I  become a Republican candidate I would be attacked personally and other candidates would be treated the way [they] are now."

That e-mail, like others from Whitaker, ended with the Jefferson Davis statement quoted above. However that epigram is interpreted, it surely isn't an easy fit with the kind of rhetoric that emanated from the SRLC gathering, at which notables like South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham and national GOP chairman Ken Mehlman made direct appeals for outreach to black voters.

In any case, there wouldn't seem to be much mystery as to why the Tennessee Republican Party has a case of the shakes about the situation -- and about a parallel one in the 8th Congressional District, where one James Hart hopes to bear the GOP party label against longtime Democratic incumbent John Tanner, as Hart did -- to the enduring embarrassment of the Republican establishment -- in 2004.

There isn't much mystery about Hart, a sometime real estate salesman who would probably answer gladly to the 19th-century label "racialist" and measures up also to the more contemporary epithet "racist." Publicly, he calls himself a "eugenicist" and rails against the prospect that "less-favored races," both native-born and immigrant, will undermine the American social fabric.

Hart and Rory Bricco and John Farmer, two other candidates for the Republican nomination in the 8th District, are scheduled to participate in a campaign debate on May 2nd sponsored by the newly up-and-running Shelby County Conservative Republican Club.

In a press release last week concerning the event, Angelo Cobrasci, founder and president of the SCCRC (and, coincidentally, Whitaker's campaign manager), said that he had consulted with Bill Giannini, current chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, and that both had come "to the same conclusion," that "Hart has every constitutional right to run for this seat."

There was a "but" clause, however: "[W]e also believe that the 'R' that is used for running as a Republican comes with a price tag. There are certain morals, ethics, and principles that should go hand in hand with being a Republican. This is not always the case, and as true Conservative Republicans it is our DUTY to expose these people who are falsely running as a Republican."

In other words, the debate would serve the same end devoutly wished for by the state GOP hierarchy -- to discredit Hart's views by "exposing" them in an open and competitive environment.

Exposure of his views, of course, is precisely what Hart has said he wants, and the public debate will give him, for better or for worse, a "new and enlarged arena" for the purpose.

Another issue having to do with race has reared itself of late, with members of the extended Ford family engaging in quasi-public debate about the racial identity of Vera Ford, mother of several public officials, including county commissioner Joe Ford, former U.S. representative Harold Ford, and state senator Ophelia Ford, and grandmother of current congressman Harold Ford Jr.

The debate was ignited earlier in the year when Representative Ford, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, made the surprise claim on the stump that his late grandmother had been white.

As it happens, Ophelia Ford differs with her siblings mentioned above. Senator Ford, currently involved in a legal struggle to save her seat, said in Nashville in January that her mother was black. "She may have looked white, but she was African-American."

Yet another political Ford, Joe Ford Jr., the California lawyer who became a surprise entry in the 9th District congressional field as a Democrat, has provided an opportunity for a hitherto little-known Republican candidate, Tom Guleff, to increase his own name recognition at Ford's expense.

Guleff, a West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran, has been making hay in e-mails and press releases with a series of mock advisories to Ford about Memphis and with advice on how the newcomer might adjust to his new environment.

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