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Fight to Finish in Tennessee Senate Race

November 1, 2006 at 3:41 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a Choices ’06 report on another of those very tight U.S. Senate races that will decide control of the Congress. Tennessee gets the treatment tonight. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins.

KWAME HOLMAN: Five-term Congressman Harold Ford is hoping to become the first black senator elected in a southern state since the 1870s.

REP. HAROLD FORD (D), Candidate for U.S. Senate: I don’t believe that what’s happening in Washington right now is Democrat or Republican; it’s just wrong, because they don’t solve problems anymore. They don’t reach out to people any more. They don’t respond to the needs of people anymore. That’s what I want to do in the United States Senate.

KWAME HOLMAN: But his Republican opponent, wealthy businessman and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, is betting his experience running Tennessee’s fourth-largest city will lead him to victory on Tuesday.

BOB CORKER (R), Candidate for U.S. Senate: I think that what people want today is someone who knows how to solve problems.

KWAME HOLMAN: The two candidates, vying for the Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist, have traded leads in the polls for months.

Contrasting figures released yesterday gave both campaigns reason for cheer. A CNN poll showed Corker with an eight-point advantage, while a Wall Street Journal-Zogby poll had Ford within one.

Along with Missouri and Virginia, Tennessee is critical in the fight for control of the Senate, and both campaigns are bringing in the big guns.

RALLY HOST: Ladies and gentleman, the president of the United States!

KWAME HOLMAN: Ford showed off the former president at a packed church in Memphis this afternoon.

BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: Harold Ford’s victory will be your victory. Whoever you are, whatever you look like, whatever your political party, as long as you are committed to thinking, as long as you believe in the more perfect union of our founders’ dreams, as long as you believe in a better tomorrow.

KWAME HOLMAN: Corker got a boost from the first lady yesterday. Speaking in northeast Tennessee, Mrs. Bush said Corker’s accomplishments as mayor prove he’s ready for the U.S. Senate.

LAURA BUSH, First Lady of the United States: Under Mayor Corker’s leadership, Chattanooga’s violent crime rate dropped by half. Bob helped the city homeowners by managing the budget so that Chattanooga’s property taxes are the lowest since the 1950s.

Campaign Battles Get Dirty

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, the candidates themselves have been waging a fierce battle on the campaign trail and on the air. A recent television ad, sponsored by the Republican National Committee, caused a firestorm because it featured a white, bare-shouldered woman.

WOMAN IN AD: I met Harold at the Playboy party.

AD ANNOUNCER: The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

WOMAN IN AD: Harold, call me.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ford was quick to condemn the ad on the airwaves...

HAROLD FORD: All of it lies.

KWAME HOLMAN: ... and in interviews.

HAROLD FORD: ... the party of family values should not have run that in Tennessee.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even Corker distanced himself from the ad.

BOB CORKER: Again, I wish the RNC ad would come down. I think it's tacky.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Corker has approved a number of other attack ads, including one calling Ford "too slick" to represent Tennessee.

AD ANNOUNCER: Harold Ford, smooth talk, Hollywood values.

KWAME HOLMAN: And he told the NewsHour last month that Ford is more "northeast liberal" than "Memphis native."

BOB CORKER: I don't think there's any question. I mean, you know, he does not -- he is not of Tennessee. He's lived out of Tennessee since he was 9 years old.

And, you know, if you look at his base of support financially, it's certainly, as I mentioned, 69 percent from outside the state of Tennessee. And you know, I think he's just more comfortable -- I mean this truly -- he's more comfortable in places other than Tennessee.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Ford, too, has run a very aggressive campaign. He's confronted Corker on the street.

HAROLD FORD: Senator, what do you think about this Iraq thing? I know you're here to talk about my family. I thought you made a promise right after...

BOB CORKER: No, no, no, I'm here to talk about you.

KWAME HOLMAN: And he's courted mostly white voters in the eastern part of the state, a region where Democrats, especially black ones, have had little success in the past. He told the NewsHour that all Tennesseans care about the same issues.

HAROLD FORD: I think, wherever you live, you're concerned about this war in this state, wherever you live, you're concerned about the impact of illegal immigration on our security and economy. So it's a time in which issues transcend your geography in the state, if you live in the mountains in east Tennessee, the hills in middle Tennessee, or the flatland on the Mississippi River where I come from in Memphis.

So I think people are making not only their voices heard, but they're making their ideas known and their concerns known. We live in the greatest country in the world, and everybody here knows that. But the question I ask people all the time is: Do you like the direction we're headed? And do you think we can be headed in a better direction?

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Bob Corker flexed his personal financial muscle, pumping $2 million into his campaign coffers.

Candidates work to bring base out

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the Tennessee Senate race, we're joined by newspaper editors in the state: Tom Griscom, executive editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press; and Otis Sanford, managing editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Welcome to you both.

Tom Griscom, where do you think the race stands now? Do you think the CNN poll is right, which showed Corker really pulling ahead, or do you think this is still a real contest?

TOM GRISCOM, Chattanooga Times Free Press: I think it's a real tight race in Tennessee. I think you're going to find that both candidates are continuing to challenge each other. They have not moved into what typically you see are what I call closer-type ads, where you're trying to sort of just run the clock out. So I think it remains very competitive, and that tells me the race remains very competitive in the state.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because they continue to attack one another?

TOM GRISCOM: Well, that's part of it. But, also, if you look at what's been going on here, you had Mrs. Bush in yesterday, and she was in upper-east Tennessee, and some of the counties around Nashville. And that's sort of solidifying and trying to bring out some of that Republican-base vote.

And you have President Clinton today in Memphis, and that clearly was an effort to focus on some of the key votes that Congressman Ford is looking for to come out of the western part of the state.

MARGARET WARNER: Otis Sanford, if you look back at the last six, five or six Senate races in Tennessee, Republicans have won them by 10 to 30 points. Why is Harold Ford even competitive?

OTIS SANFORD, Memphis Commercial Appeal: Well, I think primarily the number-one reason is that Harold is a very charismatic guy. He's been in Washington. He's been in Congress for 10 years. He's very likable. He's very well-versed on the issues, and he comes across as a very credible candidate. And people want to like him as a viable candidate in this race.

MARGARET WARNER: And so then, do you think -- he seemed to be -- it was a real phenomenon. He even hit the cover of Newsweek a couple of weeks ago, but then he seemed to hit a rough patch. What's happened in the last couple of weeks that...

OTIS SANFORD: Well, I think that the -- of course, both sides have been involved in negative ads, and probably Mr. Ford has been the target of a lot more. And I think that that may be wearing on him a little bit. I think the confrontation that occurred with Mayor Corker here in Memphis back on the 20th of October...

MARGARET WARNER: The one in the parking lot?

OTIS SANFORD: The one in the parking lot. I think that that was seen -- that was not seen very favorably among people toward Mr. Ford. So I think that the attack ads may be wearing on Mr. Ford more than they are wearing on Mr. Corker at this point.

The role of race in the election

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Griscom, what's your view of what's been going on the last couple of weeks?

TOM GRISCOM: Well, I think one of the things that really changed was that the Corker campaign changed staff about around, you know, the first part of October, and really did an overhaul, and brought in a number of people who had more campaign experience in Tennessee and some nationally.

And that, to your question, is when you saw all of a sudden the Corker campaign sort of came together. Mr. Corker himself became more of a candidate. I mean, up to then, he'd been much more involved in some of the detailed parts of running the campaign. And I think they were moving.

I do think the Republican ad that you all showed earlier, when it came in, it sort of stopped things sort of in place. And at that point, it became the focal point of discussions -- not just in Tennessee, but nationally -- for about a week.

And now we sort of watch that through, and it's trying to see in these closing, you know, days who's going to pick up that momentum again. But that's clearly what happened that I think got the race and got the Corker effort sort of back up and moving during that period of time.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Otis Sanford, what kind of a factor and how big a factor is race in this campaign, both overtly and subliminally?

OTIS SANFORD: Well, we would be naive to think that it's not a factor. I mean, I think your previous piece indicated -- I mean, obviously, no black candidate in the state of Tennessee has ever fared well statewide, so it has to be a factor.

I don't think it's a primary factor. I think there are a lot of other issues in this race. Certainly, the Iraq issue is a factor, homeland security, and a lot of other factors. But you can't discount race, primarily because we're in the south and we're in Tennessee.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tom Griscom, do you think that the Corker campaign or its supporters have been engaging in race-baiting, to use an old word? I mean, I read about an ad today, a radio ad that mentioned in 24 seconds six times, for instance, that he was black.

TOM GRISCOM: Well, no, I mean, I think you've got to be careful, because any time that you -- you know, in a race like this, and the question comes up -- I mean, there's been references to Congressman Ford's family. And does that have a subtle racial message or not?

I think that both campaigns have been very careful. For example, when the Republican ad came up, Representative Ford termed it as smut and sleazy. And so, you know, I agree with where Otis was that, is there an issue of race in this Senate campaign? Sure, there is. But have there been efforts to try to minimize that as an issue? I think the answer to that is, yes, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tom Griscom, following up with you, how about in the polling? You know, there was this phenomenon we saw in the Doug Wilder race for governor some years back where he was many points ahead in the polls and he barely won by a point. And the thought was there was a hidden anti-African-American bias.

What's the discussion in Tennessee about that and whether that may be operating now?

TOM GRISCOM: Well, I think people are aware of that. I think people are aware of other campaigns in the past decade or so where you've had an African-American running against a white.

And, you know, we've done surveys with the Commercial Appeal. As a matter of fact, we've got another one that's going in the field tonight that we will have the results this weekend. And those numbers show that this race is neck and neck. But, you know, if that issue is there, you know, it will show itself, I think, as we get closer to, you know, to Election Day.

Early voting -- we ought to touch on this real quick, early voting is really up in this state at this point, and we still got another day to go. But I want to say the numbers, if remember right, was, you know, 40 percent or 50 percent higher than the last off-year election in Tennessee. So there's a large number of voters that have already come out, and that indicates to me there's a lot of interest in this race.

Voter turnout likely to be high

MARGARET WARNER: So, Otis Sanford, pick up on that. Do you think turnout is going to be high? And what would you say are the Corker and Ford sort of key strategies, messages in this final few days?

OTIS SANFORD: I don't think there's any question that turnout is going to be high, because I think that this is the most important Senate race probably in the history of this state, and it has huge interest.

Now, will it get presidential numbers? I'm not sure. But I think the Ford strategy is that, especially in Memphis, it needs to get presidential numbers. In Nashville it probably needs to get presidential numbers, presidential election-year numbers. So that's the strategy there.

I think where Mr. Corker is concerned, he certainly needs to trounce Congressman Ford in the eastern part of the state, and he needs to hold his own in the western part.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tom Griscom, a last thought briefly on that?

TOM GRISCOM: Well, I think that's exactly right. What Mr. Corker has been doing in the last couple of weeks is solidifying his Republican base. It was a little lax for a period of time. He's got to have a good, strong vote coming out of the traditional eastern part of the state, which is more Republican.

I think, if you look in the middle part, there's been a change over time where the donut counties around Nashville have become a little more conservative, voting a little more Republican. Davidson County, Nashville, will be critical for Mr. Ford.

And then when they roll into Memphis, I think right there you have to sort of watch that vote, because, again, there's areas around in Shelby County which will tend to vote more Republican, and then you've got the Memphis part where you've got Congressman Ford's home congressional district.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, Tom Griscom and Otis Sanford, thank you both.

OTIS SANFORD: Thank you.

TOM GRISCOM: Thank you.