NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The other day I wrote that it's ridiculous to say that Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. has "Hollywood values." But today, I'm at a "Women for Ford" event moderated by longtime Tennessee resident and political activist Ashley Judd. Also on the stage: Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a conservative, religious Southern Democrat whom Ford is clearly trying to emulate politically. The value of the Double Jeopardy star to the Ford campaign is not so clear. "All of you male reporters," the beautiful Ford announces, "I know you're jealous of me right now." (Given the recent campaign brouhaha over Ford's supposed eye for the ladies, this is a joke he could have skipped.)
Ford's rhetoric is seductive, even once you realize that his answers tend to veer off-topic. In response to a question about teacher pay, he makes the point that Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates need to donate their time and expertise to helping our troops defuse IEDs in Iraq. Judd and Landrieu praise his far-sighted approach to domestic policy issues. Later, I ask Landrieu what Ford's candidacy has taught Democrats about what it takes to win in the South. Along with his moderate record, she singles out his energy as a campaigner. On this night, he shakes every hand in the room.
Bob Corker, meanwhile, spends his afternoon meeting and greeting outside LP Field, the home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans. I had heard that he wasn't much of a retail politician, but the compact, white-haired pol seems totally at ease among the seamheads. When a guy in a Vince Young jersey comes up and says he's pissed about illegal immigration, Corker points out that it's a very important issue for him, too. In fact, he'd just been talking about it with the guy in the Keith Bulluck jersey.
The folksy Corker moved the needle in the last few weeks, thanks perhaps to the RNC's Playboy party ad. Now, his camp is trying to fan the embers of a Ford sound bite into a charge that the Jesus-loving congressman said Democrats love God more than Republicans. This manufactured controversy is designed solely to inflame a GOP base that hasn't had much to cheer about recently.
But that Republican base is easy to find in these parts. In 2004, 72 percent of voters in the exceptionally wealthy, exceptionally fast-growing, exurban Williamson County sided with George W. Bush. The 36,000-vote margin in Williamson more than made up for the GOP's 25,000-vote deficit in neighboring Davidson County, home to Nashville proper. The key for Tennessee Republicans in 2006 is to get a repeat of their remarkable ground game in redder-than-red counties like Williamson.
Doug Grindstaff, the chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party, is sure his county won't vote for Harold Ford Jr. He's worried, though, that they won't vote at all. "My concern is that Republicans have been pummeled with a lot of bad news, a lot of stress, and a lot of them are just fatigued and tired with the political process," he says. In 2004, the voter turnout in Williamson was 80 percent. For this off-year election, Grindstaff thinks it's reasonable to shoot for 50 percent.
How have the Republicans become the party that knows how to get out the vote? Grindstaff theorizes that while the Democrats used to have the advantage by being able to tap organized labor, there are now a greater number of Republicans who are willing to sacrifice time and money to rally the troops. His precinct captains don't have to work very hard going door-to-door in certain neighborhoods, Grindstaff says, because GOP women's groups have already been doing that work for months.
And how are the Democrats playing catch-up? Mark Brown, the spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, says it's not fair to criticize the Dems' 2004 get-out-the-vote operation in Tennessee, considering that they got stiffed by the Kerry campaign and the national party, which figured Tennessee was a lost cause and didn't campaign here. Now, the state's got as much help as it wants. Cash is pouring in from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Bill Clinton recorded a pro-Ford phone call that's going out to voters starting today.
Brown says the Dems are focused on early voting. This year, he expects that for the first time more people will vote in the two-week early voting period than will vote on Tuesday, Nov. 7. One consequence of early voting is that it generates data that can be acted upon the next day. If the party gets reports that "Area X is kind of down, maybe we do a few more phone calls," Brown says. Also, canvassers have no need to wait until Election Day to cajole people to polling places. The hope for the Democrats is that the early voting window will allow them to goose turnout in places like Memphis' Shelby County—Ford's stronghold—to levels usually seen in presidential elections.