NASHVILLE — Both the Republican candidate, Bob Corker, and the Democratic candidate, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. complain that the national parties are slinging so much “mud” here that they can barely get their points across to voters.
The stakes are huge in Tennessee. Control of the U.S. Senate may hinge on the result here.
Mr. Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, asked the Republican National Committee (RNC) to take down an ad that first aired Friday accusing Mr. Ford of taking money from pornographers, and said it hinted at interracial dating — the ending shows a scantily clad, white blonde winking and saying, “Hey, Harold call me.”
“The new RNC ad we have just seen on our local broadcast outlets is tacky, over the top and is not reflective of the kind of campaign we are running,” said Tom Ingram, Corker campaign chairman, adding that the campaign asked that a radio ad be pulled two weeks ago.
After viewing the ad, Mr. Ford lost his cool and confronted Mr. Corker, ambush style, just before a press conference at a Friday campaign stop at the Memphis airport. He got in Mr. Corker’s face and asked him to stop talking about his family, then asked him to talk about Iraq.
“I really just wanted to ask him about this ad,” Mr. Ford said.
Just days earlier, Mr. Corker was asked about other ads that had been aired.
“As you know, we can’t talk directly with the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] or the RNC, so I don’t know about ‘em till I see them, but if we see an ad we don’t like, we’ll ask for it to be pulled,” he said.
Not one of the polls that have come out this month shows either candidate gaining any momentum or building a solid lead. This campaign could be the most widely watched with reporters from Britain, South Korea and Canada following both men around the state.
Most voters and political analysts say that western Tennessee will heavily support Mr. Ford, while the eastern part of the state will go to Mr. Corker, leaving the battleground, where the attack ads are the heaviest, in the state’s midlands around Nashville and to the south.
“This is where the battle is, right here. This is where the votes are,” said Wendell C. Dawson, a lawyer in Nashville with the state Attorney General’s Office, who said that he doesn’t necessarily like Mr. Ford because “he’s a little too far to the right for me and some of the stuff he says makes me wince.”
“But I am like a lot of people in this state. I want change,” Mr. Dawson said, adding that he hasn’t had much chance to gauge Mr. Corker beyond “from the ads I’ve seen, he is toeing [President] Bush’s line.”
Mr. Dawson represented a chorus of black voters here who are not that fond of Mr. Ford, but who will vote for him because he can bring change, not only change on Capitol Hill, but to the South, where no black person has won a popular election to the Senate.
The candidates couldn’t be more different as people, as shown by their campaign styles.
Mr. Corker, a multimillionaire construction magnate who was state finance commissioner and Chattanooga mayor, arrives to speak to the state’s 95 county sheriffs, in a black Chevrolet Tahoe with two staffers. He quietly surveys a room, shaking hands and talking with a few people before giving his speech, about how he moved to Tennessee at age 9 and graduated from the University of Tennessee before starting his business at 25 with $8,000 in savings.
He wants everyone to know he is not a professional politician, but a “down home” native shaped by other Tennesseans. Humble is an understatement for Mr. Corker, who concedes that he is “not the best looking, or the most articulate in this race.”
Mr. Ford, 36, by contrast arrives in a white Tahoe with two staffers riding along, but it is preceded by two black sedans and followed by a huge red, white and blue bus with “Ford for Senate” etched across the side.
“Y’all are awake. You can be a little livelier than this,” Mr. Ford said when he entered, pumping up the same room of county sheriffs to whom Mr. Corker spoke a day earlier.
He talks about moving with his parents to the District at age 9, where his father would serve 11 terms in the House. He went to high school in the District and to college at the University of Pennsylvania before heading to Michigan for law school. Mr. Ford’s father retires and his son, 25, runs and wins in a shocking upset of his opponent, and he has been there ever since.
But as candidates for U.S. Senate, voters here wonder why or how two men of different races and backgrounds sound so similar on the issues.
“This is going to be one of the toughest decisions we have ever had to make,” said Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis after hearing both men speak to the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association. “Both of these guys are effective at showing us their ideas, but we have a lot of research to do on their records and on how their ideas will work in our communities.”
He wasn’t convinced that either man is the right one, and the association is split. The group’s president, Robertson County Sheriff Gene Bollinger, said he would support Mr. Ford because he liked his father. Another sheriff said he was supporting Mr. Corker because he liked what others lawmakers said about his work as finance commissioner 11 years ago.