Tennessee Voters Will Be Going on Faith In Tennessee, Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., a Democrat, is trying to become the first African American from the Old South to join the Senate since Reconstruction. But he appears to trail Republican Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor. Voters at one church offer their views on a contest in which both candidates are emphasizing their faith.
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Tennessee Voters Will Be Going on Faith

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Tennessee Voters Will Be Going on Faith

Tennessee Voters Will Be Going on Faith

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Across the country, candidates and their parties are making a last-minute push to woo voters in an election that's expected to change the balance of power in Congress.

Polls indicate Democrats will pick up enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives, but the battle for the Senate is still up in the air, with close races for Republican-held seats in Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Montana and Tennessee.

In a moment, we'll take a look at how the changing political environment is redirecting the flow of campaign contributions. But first, a visit to Tennessee, where Democratic Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. and Republican Bob Corker, the former mayor of Chattanooga, are locked in a nasty battle for the seat held by retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: Harold Ford, Jr. sounds so good on issues on TV that some people forget how he votes on issues in D.C.

ELLIOTT: Hot button social issues like gay marriage, abortion - even pornography - dominate the airwaves.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: And Harold voted 10 times for taxpayer funded abortions. That's the real Harold Ford, Jr.

ELLIOTT: Ford is fighting back.

Mr. HAROLD FORD, Jr. (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, Tennessee): I'm Harold Ford, Jr., and now they've attacked my faith, said I'm for gay marriage when I voted against it, for giving school girls abortion pills - all of it lies. Here's what I believe: in God, in you, and a new direction. That's why I approve this message.

ELLIOTT: Both candidates emphasize their faith in this state where social values are a big part of the political debate. Perhaps even more so this year, with a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the Tennessee ballot.

In one of his early campaign ads, Ford talks about growing up in church. An ad for Corker describes how he led a church mission trip.

To find out whether the candidates are connecting with the faithful, we made a stop this week at the College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, Tennessee, just east of Nashville. We arrived just in time for the Wednesday night fellowship supper.

I was going to say, before politics the most important thing is what's for dinner.

Mr. DAN WRIGHT (Tennessee Resident): Chili and grilled cheese. Excuse me just a minute...

ELLIOTT: Church member Dan Wright, clad in a long white apron, moves quickly to put a tray of white bread into the oven. He pulls out a tray that's already toasted, and stacks slices of American cheese on top.

Mr. WRIGHT: My wife isn't here. She does the bulk of it. She had to run an errand. So you are getting the backup. She just left me. She said, If you can't handle grilled cheese, you have a problem.

ELLIOTT: His system is fast. Before long, he's stacked 200 grilled cheese sandwiches while giving us an overview of the political landscape in Wilson County, Tennessee.

Mr. WRIGHT: In the Bible Belt, conservative. You know, and that's - but that doesn't apply in all cases.

ELLIOTT: He explains that many people here will vote a split ticket, including himself. He supports Democrats at the local level, and will vote to re-elect Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen. But he's leaning Republican in the Senate race.

Mr. WRIGHT: I have very much mixed feelings. In fact, my wife and I talked about this. Just because we are traditionally Republican, we'll probably vote Republican, but not necessarily because we like one or the other. Just kind of staying with your grassroots. But we're not in love with Bob Corker, who is running for Republican.

ELLIOTT: This area was once part of the solid Democratic South and is still represented by two Democratic congressmen. But in other national races, it has tilted Republican in recent years.

It's here in central Tennessee where the Senate race is likely to turn. Ford is expected to do well in West Tennessee, around his hometown Memphis, the state's largest city. And Corker, from Chattanooga, is likely to carry East Tennessee.

These voters in the middle could determine the outcome of the race.

At supper in the fellowship hall, Rebecca Dozier sits with her husband Shawn and two young daughters. She's decided to vote for Corker for one reason.

Ms. REBECCA DOZIER (Tennessee Resident): I feel like Corker best represents the values that I hold.

ELLIOTT: Talk to me a little bit about those values. What's important to you?

Ms. DOZIER: God is important. Faith. I stand for traditional marriage, a man and a woman, the preservation of the family. And I just feel like Corker holds those values more true than Harold Ford. So I intend to vote for him.

ELLIOTT: One of the things that Harold Ford has been campaigning on is sort of his religious background, growing up in a church. He says he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Ms. DOZIER: Right.

ELLIOTT: Has he not convinced you on those traditional values?

Ms. DOZIER: No, I don't think so. I know that he will vote with the Democrats and the likes of Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. And I feel like he will go with them. And I don't think he truly, truly holds the same values as I do for the traditional marriage and the family. I just don't trust him.

ELLIOTT: That party label could be Ford's biggest obstacle if this crowd is any indication. Few voters here identified with the national Democratic Party. One exception was retiree Horace Smith, a self-described yellow dog.

Mr. HORACE SMITH (Tennessee Resident): If you look at the Republicans, they lie, they have no values. I mean, that - Tom DeLay, look at him. The whole group. They don't have - they say they're Christians and that I'm not a Christian, and I don't like that. I believe I'm a Christian as much or more than they are.

ELLIOTT: The supper ends with a prayer and without many voters bringing up the war in Iraq. So I posed the question to a group of middle-aged women who lingered after the meal. Cindy Herring(ph) spoke up first.

Ms. CINDY HERRING (Tennessee Resident): I guess my biggest thing is the making sure that they're going to support the president and not make ridiculous comments like the senator did about school and if you didn't go to school and get educated, then you'll end up in Iraq.

ELLIOTT: You're talking about what John Kerry said this week.

Ms. HERRING: John Kerry. Uh-huh. You know, we need to be behind the president, and the boy and the girls. Because we've had children, you know, in our church that have been there, and I take it personal, because I know the faces of the people that are over there, and it bothers me.

ELLIOTT: Across the table, Julia Dodd nods in agreement. She's one of the few undecided voters we've met at College Hills Church of Christ, and she feels the weight of the nation watching as she struggles with her decision.

Ms. JULIA DODD (Tennessee Resident): Well, I've done some research, and do tick marks and pray about it, and you know, and cast my vote and do what I can.

ELLIOTT: To meet some of the people from Lebanon, Tennessee, go to our Web site at NPR.org.

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