WASHINGTON — They came by the hundreds that hot August day in tiny Johnson City, Tenn., gathering on an asphalt parking lot to meet Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. It was not just that he might become the state's first black senator. More than that, even in Republican eastern Tennessee, the Democratic congressman was a celebrity -- a regular guest on Don Imus' radio show.
And today, with Imus' career in tatters, the fate of the controversial shock jock is stirring quiet but heartfelt concern in an unlikely quarter: among Democratic politicians.
That's because, over the years, Democrats such as Ford came to count on Imus for the kind of sympathetic treatment that Republicans got from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.
Equally important, Imus gave Democrats a pipeline to a crucial voting bloc that was perennially hard for them to reach: politically independent white men.
With Imus' show canceled indefinitely because of his remarks about the Rutgers University women's basketball team, some Democratic strategists are worried about how to fill the void. For a national radio audience of white men, Democrats see few if any alternatives.
"This is a real bind for Democrats," said Dan Gerstein, an advisor to one of Imus' favorite regulars, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). "Talk radio has become primarily the province of the right, and the blogosphere is largely the province of the left. If Imus loses his microphone, there aren't many other venues like it around."
Jim Farrell, a former aide to 2000 presidential candidate and Imus regular Bill Bradley, said the firing "creates a vacuum."
This week, when Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) was asked by CNN why he picked Imus' show to announce his presidential candidacy, Dodd explained: "He's got a huge audience; he gives you enough time to talk, not a 30-second sound bite, a chance to explain your views;
Though Imus was a regular destination for the likes of Dodd, Ford, Lieberman, 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry and others -- as well as such GOP figures as Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- his influence has long been debated.
Talkers Magazine ranks him far below Limbaugh and liberal Ed Schultz in terms of power. His audience is dwarfed by many others, and he is not heard in some major markets [though his show was simulcast on cable TV]. One senior Democratic strategist, requesting anonymity to avoid insulting some of his party's power players, said the show was no more than a "locker room for middle-age politicians."
Not all high-level Democrats were drawn to the self-styled "I-Man." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a party presidential front-runner and a frequent target of Imus' jokes, said she never had the desire to appear.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the other current front-runner, appeared once -- but he was the first presidential candidate to call this week for Imus' ouster.
Ford strategists believe his relationship with Imus was central to earning credibility in the eyes of white voters in conservative regions of Tennessee. "That's how I got to know Harold, seeing him on Imus," said Ben Scharfstein, owner of the One Stop convenience store in Johnson City, who turned over his parking lot that August day for the campaign event.
But even Scharfstein said he had now had it with Imus. "I'm going to have to turn Don off now," he said. "His ego has gotten ahead of himself, and that's not worth watching."
And Ford was hardly leaping to the defense of his radio ally despite repeated on-air pleas from Imus to appear in his defense. Ford on Thursday called Imus' statements "reprehensible," though he added that Imus was a friend and a "decent man."
Staff writer Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.