Ford plays against type in bid for Senate upset

October 06, 2006|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Reporter

CAMDEN, Tenn. -- When a Dubai company bid to take over U.S. port operations, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. rushed to Baltimore's waterfront and beamed a TV ad back to his landlocked home state.

Accusing President Bush of outsourcing port security, the Democratic congressman promised he would "fight to protect America and keep your families safe."

Tough talk on homeland security is just one of the ways the telegenic U.S. Senate candidate from Tennessee is playing against type - and hoping to pull off the most remarkable upset of this election year.

FOR THE RECORD - A graphic on Page 7A of yesterday's editions of The Sun about major African-American political candidates mistakenly listed Maryland U.S. Senate candidate Michael S. Steele as a Democrat. Lieutenant Governor Steele is, in fact, a Republican. The mistake occurred when a graphic designer inadvertently typed in the wrong party affiliation, and it was not detected in the newspaper's copy editing and proofreading process.
The Sun regrets the error.

"I won't let them make me something I'm not," Ford defiantly declares. In a campaign commercial shot in a church sanctuary, he boasts of his House votes for the USA Patriot Act and $5 trillion in defense spending, and against amnesty for "illegals."

Republican setbacks in Washington, endless bad news from Iraq and Bush's sagging popularity have given Democrats an unexpected chance to pick up the Senate seat of retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Ford, whose centrist image seems carefully tailored to this Southern state, may be the most gifted campaigner of 2006. Brash, energetic and possessed of Bill Clinton-like charm, he has a chance to win a race that once seemed out of reach and help Democrats gain control of the Senate.

It would also open a new chapter in the evolution of American politics. A member of the state's most famous - some would say infamous - black political clan, Ford would become the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South and gain overnight prominence on the national scene.

Ivy League-educated (University of Pennsylvania), he has more in common with new-generation politicians such as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (Columbia University) and Massachusetts gubernatorial nominee Deval Patrick (Harvard), than with his father, former Rep. Harold E. Ford Sr., and other veterans of the civil rights era.

The elder Ford was acquitted in 1993 on federal bank fraud charges, and the candidate's uncle John Ford is awaiting trial on bribery charges. Another of his father's brothers, former state Rep. Emmitt Ford, was convicted of insurance fraud in 1981.

Harold Jr., as he's known, says he "can't do anything about" his relatives and asks voters to judge him on his own record. His Republican opponent, Bob Corker, reminds voters that Ford's "family business is being in politics."

A new attack ad, sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, accuses Ford of partying at Playboy magazine's Super Bowl bash and wonders: "What kind of man is Harold Ford?" Ford, a bachelor, brushes off the negative ads as "X-rated slime" and "lies," though, he confesses, "I do like girls."

The Republican, attacked in Democratic ads for allegedly hiring illegal immigrants in his construction business, freely admits he can't match his rival's star power.

"I know I'm not as good looking, [and] I can't speak as well," says Corker, 54. The former Chattanooga mayor is counting on his personal wealth and the state's decidedly Republican bent to fend off the 36-year-old Ford.

Ford's considerable talents were on display yesterday in Camden, a west Tennessee town best known as the place where country singer Patsy Cline died in a 1963 plane crash.

Everywhere he went, Ford tried to reassure white voters that "I don't look like you, but I share your values." Mindful that Democrats here believe that Al Gore lost his home state in 2000 on the issues of guns and abortion, he told local radio station WFWL: "I fear my God just like you do, and I'm not going to take anyone's gun."

Wearing a camouflage-colored campaign hat and black cowboy boots, he stood in the parking lot of the local Chevy dealership and challenged his Republican foe to a skeet-shooting contest. At the local farm co-op, he pointed his index finger to the sky and told a CBS newsman down from New York that "if we win this race, my Lord will have a lot to do with it."

At the Catfish Place restaurant, he delighted a lunchtime rally of local whites by using the national press corps as a foil.

"They came down because they can't believe you voting for me," he says, speaking colloquially. To loud squeals of laughter, he made light of his own skin color: "Some of y'all 'bout darker than me."

Ford's candidacy is going over well with voters such as Steve Pettyjohn, 45, a local contractor who voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s but says he is backing Ford because there are "no checks and balances" in Washington now that Republicans control the entire government.

Bobby Gray, 58, another local businessman, says that, with events in Iraq running out of control, he deeply regrets voting for Bush in 2004.

"I'm going to vote for Harold Ford Jr.," he says. "I know part of his family has had problems, but I guess we all could dig around and find somebody in our family that we're not particularly proud of."

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