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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's just over a week until election day, and Republicans are working hard to hold on to both chambers of Congress. One of the Senate races that's on the line is in Tennessee, where Harold Ford, Jr., an African-American candidate, is running against Republican Bob Corker. I spoke earlier with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams, who joined us by phone from Memphis.

JUAN WILLIAMS: The state is changing in the midst of tremendous demographic flux, as you have voters coming, more people coming from the North and especially from the Midwest to a state where now you have a real presence on the part of the auto industry. So it's bringing in a different type of voter, one that's not locked in to the old black-white/Republican-Democrat paradigm in the South. And so white voters were more open to voting for a black candidate like Harold Ford.

The other point, and this was one that was pointed out in piece in the Wall Street Journal, Madeleine, is that this state has about 16 percent black population. It's not as threatening to whites - and to white voters, in specific - as it might be in, let's say, Alabama, which has about a quarter of the population that's African-American, or Mississippi, where a third of the population is African-American. Here with a fewer, smaller number of African-Americans, you're more likely to get white voters to be open to the idea of giving some power to a black elected official.

BRAND: That's fascinating. It doesn't hurt also that Harold Ford Jr. is not a typical Democrat. He has quite conservative credentials.

WILLIAMS: Indeed. In fact, today he's been on the air making it clear that he would vote in support of a ban on gay marriage.

BRAND: Well, speaking of that, Wednesday's New Jersey Supreme Court decision on that topic, the court didn't say whether or not there should be gay marriage, but did rule that gay couples should have the same legal rights as heterosexuals. And Republicans have pounced on that as great fodder for the election.

WILLIAMS: Well, you've got several states, including the one I'm in, Tennessee, where you have the issue on the ballot. And you look at a state like Virginia, where you have such a close race between Jim Webb and Allen. And what gets there is that suddenly you can say to the voters, you know, let's re-energize the right-wing base here, gay marriage is in the air, guess who picks the judges, it's the U.S. senators. And so the Republicans are trying to make hay with it, as was evidenced by President Bush getting on the stump yesterday in Iowa and raising the issue once again.

BRAND: And here is the president on the campaign trail talking about that in Iowa.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe it's the sacred institution, that it's critical to the health of our society and the well-being of families, and it must be defended.

BRAND: Well, Juan, ironically this decision came down in New Jersey, where there is also a hard-fought Senate race. And is it an issue there?

WILLIAMS: You know, it's ironic, Madeleine. It's not really there because the Republican candidate there, State Senator Tom Kean, has really much stayed away from those kinds of issues. He's focused largely on economic issues, on war on terror, ethical improprieties that he's charged against his opponent - the Democrat Robert Menendez, who is the incumbent - and they say they're not going to run ads on the issue. So it's kind of telling that outside of New Jersey, it's a much bigger issue than it is inside the state where the State Supreme Court made the ruling this week.

BRAND: Why is the incumbent, Democrat Menendez, having such trouble? I mean, this a state that leans Democrat.

WILLIAMS: Well, he's had some questions about financial improprieties that pre-date his time in the Senate, when he was a House member. And it's just raised questions about, you know, New Jersey and its history of political corruption. But also, you got to remember that Tom Kean's dad is former governor, former member of the 9/11 Commission, much respected, much loved figure in the state. So although Tom Kean is really a neophyte, this family name is carrying him a long way.

BRAND: And earlier this week, Juan, there was controversy over a political ad against Harold Ford, an ad that many said was race-bating. And you're there in Tennessee. What's been the fallout over that ad?

WILLIAMS: No polls have been taken to indicate exactly what impact the ad has had, although clearly, in a state with a history of racial tensions - I mean, this is where the KKK was founded - it could have tremendous impact, especially on - in terms of the far right base here in the state.

BRAND: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams reporting from Tennessee. Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

BRAND: And you can find out which House races could swing control to the Democrats, and get a forecast of who's likely to win in each. Just go to our website, npr.org.

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