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Three states could swing Senate control

In Tennessee and two other closely contested races, candidates court disaffected GOP voters.

October 22, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

KNOXVILLE, TENN. — In his paint-splattered sweatshirt and battered baseball cap, Chris Foust stopped by on his lunch break last week to listen to Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., the Democratic Senate nominee, at a downtown rally.

Foust, a soft-spoken regular churchgoer who worries about illegal immigration and opposes gay marriage, usually votes Republican and backed President Bush in 2004. But he's grown disillusioned with Bush, especially over the Iraq war. And after Ford finished his energetic speech at the noon rally, Foust decided to support him in next month's election.

"He seems like he's an honest guy," said Foust, who works for a commercial painting company. "He seems like he has a genuine concern for people."

Disenchanted, usually Republican-leaning voters like Foust may decide not only the tight Tennessee contest between Ford and Republican Bob Corker, but the battle for control of the Senate as well.

Two weeks before election day, odds are increasing that the Senate could turn on the results of close contests in Tennessee, Virginia and Missouri, three states along the border between the solidly Republican Deep South and Democratic terrain in the Northeast and industrial Midwest.

Each of these states presents a distinct political puzzle. But Democrats face the common challenge of attracting right-of-center voters like Foust who helped Bush carry all three states two years ago but have soured on the nation's direction since.

"No one is going to say these aren't tough states," said Democratic pollster Peter Brodnitz, who is advising Ford in Tennessee and Democratic Senate nominee Jim Webb in Virginia. "But voters are very hungry for change."

Still, finding enough disenchanted voters remains difficult for Democrats in the three states, largely because of enduring Republican strength in socially conservative small-town and rural communities. If Democrats fall short in their bid to recapture the Senate, these three states may be their Heartbreak Hill.

Trends across the Senate battlefield are moving the three states into their potentially pivotal role. Recent polls show Democrats consistently leading incumbent Republican senators in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Montana, and maintaining a more marginal edge in Rhode Island. In New Jersey, where Republicans have their best opportunity to capture a Democratic-held seat, most recent surveys show Sen. Robert Menendez reestablishing a narrow lead over his Republican challenger.

But even if all those states break for the Democrats, the party still would capture the Senate only if it won two of the three Republican seats in Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia. In a measure of the Democratic challenge, Republicans now hold all six of the three states' Senate seats.

This year, in Virginia, public polls generally show Republican Sen. George Allen narrowly leading Webb, who was Navy secretary under President Reagan; in Missouri, Republican Sen. Jim Talent and Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill trading the lead; and here, Ford, who represents a district in Memphis, edging Corker, the mayor of Chattanooga, for the seat of retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Of the three contests, Tennessee may combine the most fascinating ingredients. Ford is running against not only the recent history of Republican ascendancy across the South but the weight of history with a capital H: He is seeking to become the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction.

Ford, who has served since age 26 in the House seat once held by his father, Harold E. Ford Sr., is also challenging liberal orthodoxy on more issues than probably any other major Democratic contender this year.

He embraces several familiar Democratic priorities, including raising the minimum wage and allowing Medicare to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices. But he supports constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and flag burning and to require a balanced budget, and says he would have voted against the bipartisan Senate immigration bill because he opposes any form of legalization for illegal immigrants.

And though he is bitingly critical of Bush's management of the Iraq war, Ford opposes any effort to legislate a timetable for withdrawing American troops. Instead, he urges the U.S. to push Iraqi leaders to divide the country into semi-autonomous Shiite, Sunni and Kurd regions.

More striking is Ford's unabashed emphasis on his religious faith. In his speeches, he quotes Scripture as frequently as other candidates quote government reports.

Last week he delivered remarks that sounded more like a sermon than a political speech before 700 people who overflowed a downtown Knoxville hotel ballroom for an interdenominational prayer breakfast, one in a series of such events he's hosting. He has even filmed a television ad in which he testifies to his religious conviction from inside a church.

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