CAMDEN, Tenn.—No one knows if God is paying much attention to the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee. But the Senate race is paying a lot of attention to God.
The latest and perhaps most revealing battle in the clash for control of the Senate seat here hinges on a campaign commercial shot in a church by Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the Democrat seeking the Republican-held seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Bill Frist.
"Here," Ford says in the ad, walking down a church aisle before sitting in a pew and ripping into his opponent, "I learned the difference between right and wrong."
Not well enough, counter the Republicans.
"What kind of man parties with Playboy Playmates in lingerie, then films political ads in a church pew?" asks an ad aired by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, referring to Ford's attendance at a Playboy magazine Super Bowl party.
The skirmish over Ford's place in church underscores a central theme in the campaign: whether Ford is culturally and politically conservative enough to win over rural white voters and become the first Democrat elected from the state in 16 years—and the first black ever popularly elected from the South.
If Ford can win the Republican seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, he would help his party along the way to the six-seat gain it needs to win control. More than that, a Ford victory would signal that Democrats could win again in the South, where it has been losing both Senate seats and presidential elections.
"We're 33 days away and I can taste it," Ford said during a campaign stop in Camden.
Polls show the race a tossup between Ford and Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga. Ford has the support of more than 90 percent of the state's blacks, and solid support around his Memphis base. But he trails among whites, and polls often miss hidden bias against black candidates that could mean he trails among whites by a larger margin.
To be elected, he needs to win and hold the center.
"They say I don't look like you, but I share your values," he said to applause from more than 200 rural white voters crowded into a Camden restaurant called the Catfish Place.
He lauded Ronald Reagan, bragged of his support for gun rights, balanced budgets, the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq, and constantly illustrated political points with references to church, the Bible and God. His cowboy boots, farm co-op baseball hat and generous use of "y'all" belie his East Coast, prep school upbringing.
As if to underscore which audience he's trying to reach, Ford brushed aside a reporter from National Public Radio to give an extended interview after his Camden events to the Christian Broadcasting Network.
In a later interview, Ford said his biggest challenge is the image of the national Democratic Party.
"There is a national perception of the Democratic Party that they are out of touch on moral and cultural issues, they're unable to protect and defend the country," he said. "I think that perception is wrong, and clearly we are making progress in overcoming it."
But he never stops working at it.
He even acknowledged supporting President Bush on some issues.
"When he said let's go take down the terrorists in Afghanistan, I sided with him," he tell crowds. "When he said it was right to give our intelligence officers more tools to make sure they can find those who are doing harm to us in this country, I said, Yes, sir. And when he said I want to remove Saddam Hussein, I wish he had a plan, but I said, Yes, sir, I'll go with you."
Of his attendance at Playboy magazine's Super Bowl Party, the bachelor tells audiences to laughter, "I got to admit, I do like girls."
Said Buck Carter, a county highway superintendent in Camden: "In this part of the world, that's not a negative. Guys around here would rather have gone with him."
He also raises the potentially troubling subject of his family. His father, a former congressman, was acquitted of corruption charges in 1993. His uncle, a state senator, faces trial this fall on corruption charges.
"I love my family," Ford told supporters. "There is nothing anybody can say or do that will bring any distance between any member of my family and me."
Ford accuses Republicans of trying to use "code words" to remind voters that he is black.
"They talk abut how different I am from you. And they got all these mail pieces going out all over the state, saying Harold Ford's not one of you," he said. "I know what he's really trying to say, and you do, too."
He also accused Republicans of altering a photo of him to make him appear darker. Ford is fair skinned.
Corker did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But Chris Devaney, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, said the photograph of Ford was not altered.
He also said that Ford has a more liberal voting record than he admits. The National Journal last year gave him a rating of 58 percent, with 0 being the most conservative and 100 being the most liberal.
"To get elected in this state, you have to have conservative values," he said. "When you look at his record, he clearly isn't."
For more on the campaigns, see:
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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