DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is retiring this year, creating one of the few open seat Senate races in the country.
On Thursday, Tennessee Democrats will nominate Harold Ford, Jr. for the seat, and we'll look at that candidacy tomorrow.
But tonight, we consider the Republican contest, where three rivals are claiming to be the true conservative in the race. Christine Buttorff from member station WPLN in Nashville has more.
CHRISTINE BUTTORFF reporting:
While the three Republicans vying to succeed Frist in Tennessee have been campaigning on the ground for months, they've turned to the airwaves in the final weeks leading up to Thursday's primary.
(Soundbite of radio clip)
Unidentified Announcer: Van defended our troops in Congress and he's running an honorable campaign for the Senate. But Bob Corker is running a cowardly smear campaign. It's wrong. Corker never...
BUTTORFF: That's the ad U.S. Senate candidate Van Hilleary released in response to an ad run by former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker. Hilleary spent most of the race decrying Corker's well-financed campaign.
Mr. VAN HILLEARY (Candidate): Look, if Corker didn't have a massive war chest, he would not be a viable candidate in the race.
BUTTORFF: For his part, Corker lumps Hilleary in with the third contender, Ed Bryant, calling them twins.
Bryant and Hilleary both entered Congress in the 1994 Republican sweep, the era of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. Hilleary says that puts their conservative credentials on a level Bob Corker can't reach.
Mr. HILLEARY: Bob Corker wouldn't come close, but he's got a wad of cash and it was raised from the more liberal wing of the party, the pro-income tax wing of the party, which Bob has always been a part of, and so he is in the race.
BUTTORFF: Tennessee doesn't have an income tax. The state briefly toyed with the idea in 2000 but rejected it. The issue matters in this primary because the candidates differ on so little. They all oppose abortion, and all support gun owners' rights and the war in Iraq. Still, the three insist the differences are vast and that their rivals are not genuine conservatives. Bryant says he's the true bearer of that banner.
Mr. ED BRYANT (Candidate): That the people of Tennessee really study the candidates and need to send a proven conservative person to go to Washington, and not take a chance on someone who might talk like a conservative during election years and not be a true, real conservative when they get to Washington.
BUTTORFF: Christian Grose is an assistant political science professor at Vanderbilt University. He says the state's Republican Party has an uncomfortable split between its economic and social conservatives, a split that mostly shows in the primaries.
Professor CHRISTIAN GROSE (Vanderbilt University): Independents and moderates don't get excited about voting in primaries, but people who are true believers, who are really conservative on the Republican side, they get excited about going to vote. So that's why the pitch is towards conservatives.
BUTTORFF: Corker had already out-raised his primary opponents by millions of dollars before dropping more than $2 million of his own money into his campaign fund, swelling his grand total to nearly nine million. Corker went on TV in April with ads like this one in which his mother helps introduce him to voters.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Ms. JEAN CORKER (Mother of Bob Corker): I'm Jean Corker. Bob and I were just looking through our family album. Bob was just a boy when he started working. At 25, he started his own business with money he saved...
BUTTORFF: Corker has been waiting for this opportunity since he lost the U.S. Senate nomination to Bill Frist 12 years ago. Bryant and Hilleary are no strangers to statewide races either. Hilleary ran for governor and Bryant for the U.S. Senate. Hilleary came within three percentage points of being governor. For most of the campaign, Corker has been the most visible candidate on television, but one of Corker's ads may have backfired. It accused Bryant and Hilleary of giving themselves a pay raise while in Congress. Corker was forced to revise the ad this week after Hilleary and Bryant pointed out that they'd never voted for pay raises.
Professor JOHN GEER (Vanderbilt University): That will become the issue, that his negative ad contains some information that was misleading.
BUTTORFF: Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer says while negative ads help voters differentiate between same party candidates in primaries, having to back-pedal from an accusation can be damaging.
Professor GEER: And so that's likely to come back to haunt Corker because here's some information that wasn't quite right, and the public doesn't like that.
BUTTORFF: Whichever Republican emerges from the three-way battle for the conservative vote next week will then have quite a different challenge. He'll have to find his way back to the center to counter the crossover appeal of the Democratic nominee, Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., who's also running as a fiscal conservative, pro-family values candidate.
For NPR News, I'm Christine Buttorff.
ELLIOTT: Sunday on this program, a profile of the Democratic contender, Harold Ford, Jr.
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