Race for Frist's Senate Seat Now Up for Grabs

Republicans had seemed in secure control of one Tennessee's Senate seat — the one vacated by departing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Now there's a dead heat, and the race could end with a black Democrat in office.

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A bit of an election surprise, conceivably. A list of Senate seats that Republicans currently control but could lose has a new entry, Tennessee. This is the seat that Majority Leader Bill Frist is giving up, presumably to explore a presidential race. It's a seat that Republicans were confident they could retain, but Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. seems to have made a contest of it, giving him a chance not only to be the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction, but to put the Senate into Democratic control. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: No one knows better than Bob Corker what's at stake for Republicans in the Tennessee Senate race.

Mr. BOB CORKER (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Tennessee): This is one of those big races in Tennessee history. It really is. This is one that actually can determine the direction of the United States Senate. This is what people are calling the firewall in the United States Senate. I am so proud to be carrying the banner.

CORNISH: Corker, a successful business man and the former mayor of Chattanooga, campaigns as a conservative. He calls for a fully enforced fence between the U.S. and Mexico to secure borders, marriage limited to one man and one woman, and wants to make the president's tax cuts permanent. So why has he lost enough ground in this normally Republican state to find himself in a dead heat?

Professor BRUCE OPPENHEIMER (Vanderbilt University): When you have a president with a job approval rating hovering just above or just below 40 percent, that makes even territories which are safe for his party normally in play.

CORNISH: Bruce Oppenheimer is a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. He says Corker's opponent, Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., is an aggressive fundraiser and knows how to deal with whatever weaknesses he may have.

Prof. OPPENHEIMER: His views on issues are not as easily predictable. He comes across as a much more moderate and reasonable sort of candidate. And thus he confounds some stereotypes and I think turns the fact that he's an African-American from something which might be a liability in Tennessee into something which is neutral and may in some cases be an asset.

CORNISH: And so in his stump speeches, Harold Ford weaves his education plan to recruit 10,000 new teachers in-between winding antidotes about his Christian upbringing.

Representative HAROLD FORD, JR. (Democrat, Tennessee): I share the same values you do about your kids. We grew up the old fashioned way in my house. I learned to go to church the old fashioned way. Like I said in that commercial, they made me go.

CORNISH: That impresses independent voters, such as Naoma McCullem(ph), from Camden.

Ms. NAOMA MCCULLEM (Independent Voter): He asked me to pray for him, and that was the main thing that really impressed me. I think he's really sincere. I believe he'll do a good job for us. I'm sold.

CORNISH: Tennessee Republicans, on the other hand, know the atmosphere is not great for their party, but some, like Kim White, still feel that a Beltway outsider like Bob Corker is what is needed.

Ms. KIM WHITE (Republican voter): Well, I think a lot of things. With the war in Iraq, there's a lot of controversial things going on, with just the mood of the country, I think. I think people are looking for a change, and what they have to realize with Bob is Bob is giving them a change, that he's a businessperson, he's not from Washington, that he can be the change that they're looking for.

CROWD: We want Bob! We want Bob! We want Bob! We want Bob!

CROWD: We want Harry! We want Harry! We want Harry! We want Harry!

CORNISH: At a debate held this week in Chattanooga, the elephant in the room seemed to be the Republican Party. Ford, running as a centrist, repeatedly shifted between hailing his collaborations with the Republicans, while labeling his opponent a rubber stamp for that party.

Rep. FORD: If you want someone who will look a Republican in the eye and say, you're right; if you want someone to look a Democrat in the eye when he or she is right, and say, you know what, I'm with you; or a Republican in the eye when they're wrong and tell them the same, I'm asking for your vote and your prayers in this race.

CORNISH: For his part, Corker tried to play on the dissatisfaction with Washington by labeling Ford a lifetime politician who all but inherited his congressional seat from his father, a consummate insider.

Mr. CORKER: I've lived the life of meeting a payroll, of solving difficult problems, of building businesses, of creating jobs, of making budgets meet, making sure that there's a bottom line. I've lived a life in that regard. My opponent has lived a life in Washington.

CORNISH: In beginning a run for the White House, Bill Frist had once hoped for a seamless handoff of his Senate to the Republican nominee. It may not happen. Even more distressing for the GOP is the ultimate irony, that a Democratic win in Tennessee could bring a Democratic-controlled Senate.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Nashville.

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