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VOL. 123 | NO. 173 | Thursday, September 4, 2008

Rock Star vs. Maverick

Obama-McCain race heats up in Tennessee

By Andy Meek

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Newsweek magazine senior editor and columnist Jonathan Alter came to Memphis in November 2006 to plug his new book on the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.”

Alter’s visit came during the closing days of the 2006 U.S. Senate race between Harold Ford Jr. and Bob Corker, so after his lecture at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, the talk naturally turned to politics. Someone in the crowd asked Alter, who’s now covering his seventh presidential campaign for the magazine, who he thought the parties’ two candidates would be this year.

He offered a guess – U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., – which turned out to be correct, even though he likely doubted himself a time or two over the course of the following year.

Up in the air

A similar guess about the ultimate winner of the contest between those two men, meanwhile, might prove to be more elusive. But there’s plenty of data and political thought coming out of Memphis and Tennessee to illuminate the forces shaping this year’s race.

The money, for example, is an easy indicator. Through July 31, according to the most recent data from the Federal Election Commission, Obama had collected almost $1.6 million from Tennessee donors.

McCain, by contrast, has raised almost $1.4 million from Tennessee donors. To add some context to that total, it reflects at least five fundraising and other political events at which McCain has appeared in the state since early 2007. Four of those trips were stops McCain made in Memphis.

Obama has not visited the state as of yet, though his wife, Michelle, made an appearance in Nashville earlier this year.

Considering what happened in the 2000 presidential election, it could be argued that Tennessee ought to be a sure thing for a Republican candidate. During the 2000 race, even native son and Democrat Al Gore Jr. could not carry Tennessee against George W. Bush. That’s significant because if Gore had carried the state, the Florida recount debacle would not have mattered, because Tennessee could have pushed Gore over the top.

Gaining enthusiasm

Even so, McCain’s supporters in Memphis and across the state are raising the decibel level of their praise for him following the announcement last week of McCain’s vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“I’m pumped up,” Memphis attorney John Ryder told The Daily News by phone from St. Paul, Minn., where he was attending the Republican National Convention. Ryder, an attorney with Harris Shelton Hanover Walsh PLLC, also is a co-chair of Tennessee Lawyers for McCain. “This is a double-maverick kind of ticket. And I think the message is this is not going to be the same old, same old.”

Ryder said the reaction among convention delegates and other convention-goers quickly went from surprise to enthusiasm once word about the choice of Palin was handed down.

“She’s a hunter. She’s a union member. She’s a child of two school teachers,” Ryder said. “She’s been a small-town mayor. She’s a governor. She’s a mother. She’s got a son in Iraq, and we’re thinking, ‘My Gosh.’ Her résumé’s just fabulous.”

Former Tennessee senator, University of Memphis graduate and McCain friend Fred Thompson told an audience at the convention this week that he sought out McCain’s advice when he began preparing for a Senate run in the early 1990s.

“He convinced me I could help make a difference for our country,” Thompson said during Tuesday’s convention.

‘Rock star’

Obama’s local supporters are no less enthused, a fact in evidence from more than his total haul in campaign contributions from Tennessee supporters. Prior to his speech at the Shelby County Democratic Party’s Kennedy Day Dinner, for example, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., told The Daily News that Obama has a once-in-a-generation kind of appeal to voters.

When Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention in Denver last week, Memphis City Council member Myron Lowery – who also was a delegate at the convention – saw a woman near him who was so moved by the address that she saved a single piece of confetti as a souvenir.

“It’s incredible the appeal he has,” Cooper said. “We walked from a townhouse near Capitol Hill up to the Capitol to vote. And kids were screaming. He’s like a rock star. It’s fabulous. There’s like a million new voters registered in North Carolina and Indiana. Nobody else has been able to do that.”

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