NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The Iraq war and racism form the raw bookends of the tight U.S. Senate race in Tennessee, which could be historically significant and could make or break the Democrats' campaign to take over the upper chamber of Congress.
Iraq is the dominant issue, voters told a recent McClatchy-MSNBC poll. And the Democratic candidate, Rep. Harold Ford Jr., 36, would be the first black U.S. senator from the South since Reconstruction. He says U.S. policy in Iraq isn't working and endorses splitting the nation into three semi-autonomous regions—for Sunni Muslim Arabs, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Kurds—with a weak central government.
Republican Bob Corker, 54, is a white businessman and former Chattanooga, Tenn., mayor. He favors staying the course in Iraq until the mission is complete.
Ford couldn't have gotten so close without a public backlash against the war and President Bush, political analysts here say. But if Corker wins, several voters said, they'll blame latent, if not overt, racism for Ford's defeat.
Still, it's not that simple. If the voting next Tuesday is as close as polls suggest, parochial issues below the headline topics of war and race could spell the difference. The candidates' personal weaknesses, their parties' records on gay rights, health care and taxes, and the changing makeup of voters in the state could tip the outcome.
Many voters said this week in interviews in and around Nashville that they were turned off by Ford's large and politically influential Memphis family, which has been dogged for years by corruption investigations. An uncle who was a state senator is awaiting trial on bribery charges even now.
"I just don't think the acorn falls far from the tree," said Mike Shackleford, 47, a businessman who voted early for Corker. Ford "may be a fine person, but I don't know enough about him."
Ford's more charismatic than Corker, but the congressman, who's single, has a reputation as a Casanova and somewhat of a policy lightweight. Flanked by screen actress Ashley Judd and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., at a "Women for Ford" event this week, he meandered through several policy questions and frequently deferred to Landrieu.
When Judd championed monogamy, saying, "It's useless, by the way, if only one partner is being faithful," Ford perked up. "Let me write that down," he quipped. Asked about his faith, he said he renewed his commitment to prayer after his uncle's indictment.
Both candidates tout their Christianity and applaud traditional family values.
The Republican Party has had a big statewide advantage in Tennessee since the 1990s, when white conservative Democrats switched parties. Retiring Sen. Bill Frist won his last election, in 2000, with 65 percent of the vote. And a proposed gay-marriage ban for the state on this year's ballot could help Corker by boosting Republican turnout.
If Ford wins, factors beyond Iraq that could help him include voters' desire for more affordable health care, on which Democrats are regarded as more sympathetic. Charlie Miller, 69, a retired salesman, said he prefers Corker on other issues, but that "it'll be close . . . everybody needs insurance."
Ford can appeal to moderates by citing his 2002 race against liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to become House Democratic leader, his support for school prayer and his devotion to his faith. He's never positioned himself as a liberal.
His candidacy is likely to prompt high turnout among blacks, who compose 16 percent of the state's population. A McClatchy-MSNBC poll earlier this month showed that blacks split for Ford by 86-4 percent, but that whites tilt to Corker by 53-36 percent. Women split about evenly between Ford and Corker, while men tilted toward the Republican by a 5-point margin.
Although analysts here suggest that it may not be happening fast enough to help Ford, Tennessee's favorable business climate is gradually changing the population by bringing in voters from traditionally more liberal states. Nissan moved its California headquarters to a suburb south of Nashville last summer, for example.
Kristi Weiner, 40, a consultant whose husband works for Nissan, can't vote because she's still registered in Los Angeles. If she could, she said, "I'd probably vote for Ford."
Voters also debate the effect of a television ad that was paid for by the Republican National Committee and pulled down after cries of race-baiting. In it, a bare-shouldered white woman flirts, "Harold, call me."
Some black voters, such as Wanda Graham, 53, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and local Democratic activist, worry that the ad could hurt Ford by recalling traditional Southern cultural taboos against interracial sexuality. But some younger white voters who want to distance themselves from stereotypes said it could hurt Corker.
Rachel Deering, 28, said she and her husband usually voted Republican, but that this time—because of the ad—they planned to stay home in protest.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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