CHATTANOOGA - If it's conservative Republicans who usually take the rap for too much mixing of politics and religion, Democrat Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee is doing his part to even the score.
The Memphis congressman, now running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist, has for several weeks featured a TV commercial in which he addresses the viewer directly from the interior of a church-with a large Christian cross quite deliberately filling the screen just behind his right shoulder.
It's not the kind of political advertising you're used to seeing from modern Democrats. But the bold commercial may be one big reason Ford is now neck-and-neck for the key Senate seat with Republican Bob Corker, former mayor of Chattanooga.
"I started church the old-fashioned way," says Ford as he strolls up the aisle and sits down in a front pew. "I was forced to. And I'm better for it. . . . Here, I learned the difference between right and wrong-and now Mr. Corker's doing wrong." The commercial goes on to accuse Corker of misrepresenting Ford's record.
Bob Corker is himself serious about his faith. He likes to tell how a short-term missionary trip to Haiti in 1985 changed his life; a reference to it is prominent on his campaign website. Corker is a regular at North Shore Fellowship, a relatively new Presbyterian (PCA) church in Chattanooga, and is part of a small group there.
But in today's political climate, religious commitment tends to earn a conservative Republican fewer extra points. The bonus goes instead to any Democrat who proves deft at persuading the public that issues of religion and faith are both natural and sincere.
To Corker's consternation, Harold Ford Jr. is a natural. He's hardly a regular at Mount Moriah East Baptist Church in Memphis, where the commercial was filmed, but it is where he was baptized 20 years ago-and acquaintances confirm that he can discuss his faith with insight and persuasive authenticity.
Add to that a notable moderation in his recent voting on a few social issues, and you'll understand why-even in a state where no Democrat has been elected to the Senate since 1986-Ford is giving Corker a much-closer-than-expected race. Pollsters last week called the contest a dead heat.
Ford voted against partial-birth abortion and in favor of a ban on flag-burning. In the debate between President Bush and John McCain on how to question captured terrorists, Ford tended to side with the president. Never mind that he steers clear of these issues on the campaign stump, and that his website and campaign literature are silent on such subjects. By having a few votes on the record, he can with some legitimacy claim that "I'm just not the liberal Bob Corker says I am." That seems to resonate with enough Tennesseeans to earn Ford a second look, even though his average 10-year rating by the radical Americans for Democratic Action hovers at 90.
At 36, Ford already is completing his fifth two-year term in Congress. He is often compared to Illinois Democratic senator Barack Obama both for his youth, his telegenic style, and his softer approach to many issues. But Ford, of course, was on the scene well before Obama.
"He beats us at our own game," Ty Barker of Nashville told WORLD. Barker is a Corker volunteer campaign worker, and he's worried about the outcome of a contest he first thought was a sure thing. "He's very good. But he's also very liberal. Just look at his record in a little detail."
Few voters will look at anything in detail during the last few weeks of the campaign. So Corker almost certainly will win convincing majorities in southeast Tennessee, where he is known to many as the most effective mayor Chattanooga has ever had. That popularity may spread through Knoxville and the eastern and traditionally conservative part of the state. Corker's challenge will come in Nashville and Memphis, where the African-American turnout may well determine the outcome.
The stakes are big for everyone. Few miss the irony that control of the U.S. Senate in 2007 might well be determined by a political commercial filmed in a black Baptist church in Memphis. Or that, in the process, a young African-American's presidential aspirations might also be given a boost. Even Barack Obama must be a little worried.