- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2006

Few election forecasters expect Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. to win the open Senate seat for Tennessee, but a bitter Republican primary battle is giving party officials the jitters nonetheless.

The five-term congressman, who is vying to become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction, faces huge political obstacles, including a liberal voting record that his Republican critics say is out of sync with the state’s electorate.

But a three-way Republican primary fight for the seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist has each candidate claiming to be more conservative than the others, and party chiefs fear the primary nastiness may make the state competitive in November.

The Republican Party slugfest has become so intense that it drew a rare rebuke from Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “They need to focus more on Harold Ford,” she told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last month.

The Tennessee Journal said in an editorial last week that the primary “has become so divisive — and in some cases downright nasty — that a race once considered a long shot for Ford may not be quite so long.”

Campaign forecaster Stuart Rothenberg put the Senate race in his “clear advantage” for the incumbent party column, but Senate elections analyst Jennifer E. Duffy thinks Mr. Ford has “a shot” at winning. He “may be their strongest recruit of the cycle in terms of raw talent, political skills, and fundraising ability,” she writes in the Cook Report’s election preview for the National Journal.

However, the Republican contest for the Senate nomination, which will be settled in the Aug. 3 primary, took a twist that surprised party officials here who thought the fight was between former Rep. Ed Bryant, a 2002 Senate candidate, and former Rep. Van Hilleary, the 2002 nominee for governor. Less attention was paid to former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, but he emerged as the best-funded candidate of the three, raising more money than his two rivals combined with more than $4.2 million in cash on hand.

“The establishment money is behind Corker and he’s benefited from that,” said a national party official.

Both of Mr. Corker’s rivals, to Mrs. Dole’s frustration, have been aiming firepower at the former mayor, attacking him as a tax raiser who has voted Democratic and whose administration as mayor is the subject of a fraud investigation of Chattanooga city departments.

Mr. Corker, who is not well-known elsewhere in the state, has begun a major TV ad campaign to boost his name recognition, with his rivals struggling to catch up to his fundraising levels to compete with him head-on.

The result, say Tennessee Republican officials, is that the two former House members may end up splitting the Republican Party’s conservative vote, allowing Mr. Corker to capture the nomination. A poll of likely Republican primary voters taken Tuesday and Thursday by Public Opinion Strategies showed Mr. Corker surging ahead of the pack with 43 percent. Mr. Hilleary had 23 percent and Mr. Bryant had 17 percent.

“It’s a spirited race, but I think in the end we’ll have a strong candidate who will be prepared to take on Harold Ford in the fall,” said Chris Devaney, the Tennessee Republican Party’s executive director.

Meantime, Republican campaign strategists have pummeled Mr. Ford with a stream of critical press releases, taking him to task for his opposition to the Bush tax cuts and other votes and for a taxpayer-funded gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle that he leases as a member of Congress.

Al Gore’s 1990 victory was the last time Tennessee elected a Democrat to the Senate. George W. Bush carried the state in the 2000 presidential election, defeating Mr. Gore by 51.1 percent to 47.3 percent, and won the state again in 2004 with 57 percent of the vote.

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