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A Corker of a Race in Tennessee

By Kimberley Strassel

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.--If Bob Corker's campaign has a favorite phrase these days, it's "clear choice." Warming up for a press conference, the Republican Senate candidate tells reporters that this race offers a "clear choice" between himself and Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., his Democratic opponent. Lamar Alexander shows up to note "a real choice" come November. "Yes," says Mr. Corker. "I would like to emphasize that there is a clear choice . . ."

Mr. Corker is clearly hoping that if he says it enough, voters might start to believe him. They haven't so far, which explains why Mr. Ford has the Republican Party worried. A year ago, nobody would have given the 36-year-old Democrat a chance. The South isn't exactly friendly territory for the left; Tennessee hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1990.

Long odds. Yet today Mr. Ford is dogging Mr. Corker at the polls, threatening an upset in a race that could determine the balance of power in the Senate. Over the past year the Democrat has run right on social issues and defense, neutralizing two areas that so often hurt Democrats. That has freed him up to run a more populist campaign on economic issues. The calculation is proving a winner, and offers some lessons to national Democrats still interested in again becoming viable in the South.

At least some of Mr. Ford's advantages are experience and luck. A political family scion, he's had 10 years in the House to develop a charisma that TV cameras love and plays well against his more buttoned-up opponent. The Democrat was basically unchallenged for the nomination, allowing him to pump out his message early while Mr. Corker was locked in a vicious three-way primary. And then there's the storm cloud raging around the GOP--Mark Foley, the war, corruption--which has discouraged Tennessee Republicans. Some are casting about for an alternative, some for a reason to vote at all.

Luck aside, good candidates take advantage of their environment--and Mr. Ford is good. His big goal has been to firmly identify with this buckle of the Bible belt, talking up his faith and conservative views on social issues. He points to his recent votes for bans on partial birth abortion, flag desecration and gay marriage. A cofounder of the House Faith-Based Caucus, Mr. Ford filmed one of his campaign ads in a church. Mr. Ford tells me--with a satisfied look that would surely make Howard Dean squirm--that he even has the support of Mr. Corker's former rector.

Many Tennesseans--including Republicans--miss the part about how Mr. Ford's faith is also his justification for more liberal economic positions in the name of "social justice." Also lending credibility is the fact--endlessly trumpeted--that he has taken these conservative positions despite flack from his party, and despite representing the most liberal district in Tennessee, urban Memphis.

On trickier issues, Mr. Ford has perfected the art of Third Way-ism, presenting himself as an "independent" thinker on issues such as the Iraq war. He knows many Republicans are uncomfortable with the current situation, but that they also won't get behind a cut-and-run Democrat. He's been generally supportive of the war, but also highly critical of the strategy, for which he suggests a new approach: partition of the country. There's nothing new about the idea of dividing Iraq; but Mr. Ford's votes for the war in Congress, and his willingness to talk about the need for it, has certainly resonated better than have the "credentials" of the many war vets Democrats recruited to run elsewhere. "\[Mr. Corker\] can't name a single issue where I'm a liberal," Mr. Ford says. "They've had a hard time putting me in a box. That's been very frustrating for Republicans."

No more so than Mr. Corker, who has struggled to put daylight between himself and his rival--on the war, immigration, social issues. His job is all the harder given that he doesn't have a record that allows him to gain traction on issues where Mr. Ford is vulnerable. Taxes are a good example, as Mr. Ford is on record as saying he'd raise them on the rich, and has voted against key Bush tax cuts. His line that his pro-tax votes were in the name of balanced budgets isn't one that always washes with voters.

Yet Mr. Corker hasn't wanted to talk about taxes, lest the past be revived. He was state finance czar under Gov. Don Sundquist, who earned voters' ire for pushing a new income tax. As Chattanooga mayor, Mr. Corker himself raised property taxes. While the Republican has carved out key policy differences in areas such as health care or education reform, they've figured little in the debate.

Tom Ingram, Mr. Corker's campaign manger, admits drawing a liberal-conservative comparison didn't work: "It's tough to pin labels on either of these guys," he says. "The message we've got now is that on the one hand we have an experienced, accomplished Tennessean, and on the other hand a Washington politician who is perpetuating the Ford political dynasty." In other words, biography, usually the last refuge of the desperate--though Mr. Corker may win despite this. His campaign will get a big infusion of cash now the national party is focused on a Tennessee victory.

More important, Republicans are catching on to Mr. Ford's weakness--voters' suspicion that he isn't as conservative as he says. You hear "closet liberal" intimations that his votes in recent years were planned with an eye for a Senate run, as well as examples of flip-floppery on issues like partial birth abortion (he voted against a ban in 1997) and the Kelo property rights decision. Tennesseans have seen this before, and are wary: They elected Jim Sasser as a conservative Democrat and watched him vote liberal. Ditto Al Gore.

Overcoming these fears is Mr. Ford's challenge, though what matters is that he is trying to do just that--and making headway. The Democratic Party has been aware of its weaknesses on social issues and national defense for years, but with Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi in charge, it has refused to budge from a liberal stance that resonates mainly in New York and California. Mr. Ford has shown that voters elsewhere will respond to Democrats who aren't afraid to really talk with them--and vote with them--on God and guns.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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