"There are three things I know about John Kerry," says Randal Vinson. "First, that he speaks three or four languages, and one of them is French. Second, that he's married to an ex-senator's wife who's worth a billion dollars. And third, he is supposedly a Vietnam vet."
Vinson, a 56-year-old retired computer programmer, is whiling away the afternoon at Troy's Barbershop in Huntingdon, the county seat of Carroll County in northwest Tennessee. Carroll is the bellwether county in a bellwether state: Tennessee has voted for the winner in the last 10 presidential elections, and Carroll has picked right every time. Carroll is rural, white, and struggling.
Vinson's scorn shouldn't trouble the Kerry campaign too much: He's a lifelong Republican. But Kerry does need to worry about Tennesseans like Troy Oatsvall—the Troy of Troy's Barbershop. Oatsvall, who's cut hair in Huntingdon for 40 years, never voted for a Republican presidential candidate before George W. Bush. He regrets his Bush vote, just not enough to check the box for Kerry. "I don't like what Bush has done in Iraq. I don't think one American boy is worth that whole country. But I don't like Kerry. Did you ever meet someone and just not like the way he looks? That's the way I feel about Kerry. I just don't like the way he looks."
For three days in Tennessee, that is practically the nicest thing I hear about Kerry from a Democrat. Tennessee Democrats say Kerry wants to take their guns, that he's more liberal than Al Gore, that they don't know anything about him and don't really care to, that the only reason to vote for him is that he isn't Bush.
Tennessee, in short, does not feel like a state that John Kerry can win. The question is: Is it a state that President Bush can lose?
Despite being as Southern as all get out—the state is a bastion of Christian conservatism, the headquarters of country music, and home to a strong Republican tradition—Tennessee is not the mortal lock for Republican presidential candidates that Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina are. When the Southern Democratic monopoly collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s, the Tennessee party didn't disintegrate. Tennessee's sophisticated economy and excellent universities attracted Democrat-leaning migrants. The state produced a series of talented, moderate Democratic pols, including Al Gore, former Sen. Jim Sasser, and former Gov. Ned McWherter. Today it has an exceedingly popular Democratic governor in Phil Bredesen, a Democratic state House of Representatives and state Senate, and a Democratic majority in the congressional delegation. Tennesseans lean further right in presidential elections than in local ones, but this is still a state where Democrats, at least conservative ones, compete.
A poll from four months ago—the most recent statewide poll I've seen—found Kerry only four points behind Bush. But so far neither campaign is treating the Volunteer State as a battleground. Bush has advertised only a teeny bit in Tennessee, Kerry not at all. Neither campaign has opened a headquarters. But Democrats are not entirely pessimistic. They sense Republican anxiety. President Bush, Laura Bush, and Vice President Cheney have all made recent campaign visits to Tennessee. Part of the reason for these trips is financial: Tennessee—with GOP-loving country music and health-care industries—may be the best Republican fund-raising state. But the trips were also political. Bush and Karl Rove wouldn't devote valuable presidential time to Tennessee unless they felt a wee bit vulnerable. Democratic state chairman Randy Button says that with Southerner John Edwards on the ticket, Tennessee could be in play for Democrats.
For the GOP, the 2004 logic is simple. Four years ago, President Bush took 11 electoral votes when he beat native son Gore by four points. Bush love-bombed the Vols, visiting like crazy, advertising even more, and raising a ton of Tennessee money. By the time Gore realized he might lose Tennessee, he had already lost it. "This state rejected hometown boy Al Gore because of his liberal voting record, and Kerry's record is more liberal than Al Gore's," state Republican chairwoman Beth Harwell explains to me. Tennessee, she says, "is not a swing state." Put another way, Tennessee is a must-win state for the president. In a close race, he can't win re-election without it.
If Kerry is going to beat Bush in Tennessee, he's going to have to pile up huge majorities in the western half of the state. Tennessee split in the Civil War—the east sided with the Union and Republicans, the west with the Confederacy and Democrats. Those divisions remain: Western Tennessee remains yellow-dog Democratic. (Today when Tennesseans talk about "the war," it's not always clear what war they are referring to, Iraq or Civil.)
I drive west from Nashville to meet State Sen. Roy Herron. Herron represents nine rural counties in the northwest corner of the state. He managed Gore's Tennessee campaign in 2000, when Bush killed Gore by painting him as a gun opponent and a fake Tennessean. (Herron has an interesting theory about the Tennessee 2000 campaign.)
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