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VOL. 121 | NO. 214 | Thursday, November 2, 2006

'Too Close to Call'

Despite polls, Newsweek columnist says Ford-Corker race is dead heat

By Andy Meek

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RUN OF A LIFETIME: Harold Ford Jr. and Bob Corker both have spent months on the campaign trail battling to fill the U.S. Senate seat Bill Frist is vacating. Newsweek senior editor and columnist Jonathan Alter will be in Memphis Saturday to talk about the race, among other things. -- Photos Courtesy Of The Ford And Corker Campaigns

Like a pair of prize fighters, the two men battling to become Tennessee's next U.S. senator have landed and taken their blows mainly by deploying campaign ads that now are being talked about around the world.

And one of the themes that's emerged from those increasingly nasty TV spots, the prevailing wisdom goes, is that on Tuesday, the choice between Democrat Harold Ford Jr. and Republican Bob Corker probably will come down to a question of color. But it won't be the racial tones of black or white, argues Newsweek senior editor and columnist Jonathan Alter.

The color that matters most is red.

"The fact is Tennessee's just a pretty red state," said Alter, who will be in Memphis on Saturday to speak at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library's fifth anniversary fund-raiser gala.

Red, white and blue

The visit by Alter, an award-winning journalist who's covered the last six presidential campaigns for Newsweek and written more than 50 cover stories for the magazine, comes at a time when national and international interest in the Ford-Corker race is soaring. Ford himself graced the cover of Newsweek's Oct. 30 issue, which makes considerable mention of the young congressman's faith-based, consensus-building approach to politics.

Former President Bill Clinton stumped for Ford in Memphis Wednesday at the Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ at 369 G.E. Patterson Ave. Later in the day, former NATO commander Wesley Clark joined Ford at a rally in Clarksville.

Meanwhile, flush from campaign appearances with the likes of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and President George W. Bush, Corker was joined by First Lady Laura Bush on Tuesday in Kingsport and Franklin. The Corker camp also has reached out to GOP heavyweight Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about campaigning for the former Chattanooga mayor.

"What makes the Ford-Corker race so fascinating is it's just too close to call, and anybody who tells you they know what's going to happen is blowing smoke."
- Jonathan Alter
Senior editor and columnist for Newsweek

Then there was last week's third and final debate in Nashville between Ford and Corker. Besides the usual suspects from the national press, it was attended by reporters from the U.K., Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. FOX News personality Carl Cameron was also in attendance.

Alter, who's known Ford for several years, plans to discuss how all those factors might play out on Tuesday in the election contest that Slate.com has labeled as "the hottest Senate race in the nation."

"There's especially a sense of history that's connected to (Ford) that I think people can relate to," he said. "They want to be part of that history - that, if he's elected, he would be a historical figure as the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction.

"That's a big deal if you like history the way I do."

Hot ticket

In addition to his remarks on the Ford-Corker match-up, Alter will provide some general commentary on the entire midterm election cycle, as well as a preview of the 2008 presidential campaign.

And because he's just written a new book about the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he'll also be dipping into the inkwell of history to compose the insights on political issues he'll talk about in Memphis.

During the program at the library, which starts at 7 p.m., Alter will be signing copies of his book "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope," which also will be for sale. More than likely, he said, the fund-raising event also will be a springboard for a piece he'll write for newsweek.com this weekend.

This weekend's "After Hours" celebration of the Central Library's anniversary will be a glitzy affair, including a complimentary wine and specialty beer tasting hosted by Arthur's Wines and Boscos Squared. The cost to attend is $100 a head, and proceeds benefit the Memphis Public Library & Information Center collections.

"This year, the University of Memphis jazz singers are going to perform, and our director will make some remarks in recognition of our foundation's board members," said Lillian Johnson, the library's public relations supervisor.

Frist and last

But dominating much of the program, of course, will be the highly competitive race to fill the Senate seat of Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who's widely believed to be clearing the decks for a run at the presidency in 2008.

By and large, the race is still neck-and-neck. Corker's campaign has been touting a new CNN poll that has him leading Ford 52 percent to 44 percent, comfortably outside any margin of error. But several other respected polls still have the race pegged as a dead heat.

Memphis attorney John Ryder, who's an acquaintance of White House adviser Karl Rove, expects Corker to eke out a win with 53 percent to Ford's 47 percent.

"I think his momentum may be stalled, so we will see whether he pulled ahead enough to take it," said Ryder, an attorney with Harris Shelton Hanover Walsh PLLC.

Alter is one of scores of national media figures who've been watching the Tennessee race with interest. In a recent column for Newsweek, "There Might Not Be a Tidal Wave," he wrote that Democrats shouldn't expect to be swept into power on a tidal wave of anger at 12 years of a GOP-dominated Congress.

Then again, the fact that Alter wanted to come to Memphis - the hometown of the Ford political dynasty - shortly before the midterm election is significant, because Alter knows his stuff.

Political writers like him refer to Ford as a thoroughbred.

"Winston Churchill said about FDR that meeting him was like opening a bottle of champagne," Alter said. "While I'm not sure I would say exactly the same thing about Ford, I do think he has a way of making you feel better when you're in his presence, and that's a powerful political asset to have, whether he eventually wins this race or not."

What remains to be seen is how much the color issue will come into play - that shade of Republican red, as Alter puts it, which long has colored federal, state and local politics in Tennessee.

"What makes the Ford-Corker race so fascinating is it's just too close to call, and anybody who tells you they know what's going to happen is blowing smoke," Alter said.

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