Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., discussed the spirited and surprisingly close campaign he has waged in a fight with former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker for the open Senate seat of retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist, in an exclusive appearance on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
Defending himself against accusations made by his political opponents that the five-term Democratic congressman is a "churchgoer by day and playboy by night," Ford told ABC News, "I have never been to the Playboy mansion."
"Here we are in the South, a race in which the majority leader of the Senate, Bill Frist, has held this seat now for 12 years," Ford told ABC News, in another of 'This Week's' series of "On the Trail" interviews leading up to the critical Congressional midterm elections in November and the 2008 presidential campaign. "You would think that my opponent would be out bragging that, 'Hey, I'm going to go to the Senate and do what Bill Frist has done."
Indeed, many political experts predicted Corker, a wealthy real estate developer, would be coasting to victory over the 36-year-old congressman in the increasingly Republican state of Tennessee.
Also appearing exclusively on "This Week," Corker said, "It's just a big race. I think the national environment is what it is, and I think people throughout the country have a lot of concerns that make the water a little choppy, but I am absolutely convinced I'm going to win this race."
Ford, a bachelor, has served in Congress virtually since graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1996. If elected, he would be the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. Ford has framed himself in the campaign as a "different kind of Democrat," who voted for the war in Iraq, but now favors a change in course. He also frequently invokes God on the trail and even filmed an ad in a church.
"I grew up in that church. I was baptized in that church. And the kind of attacks that we're taking in this campaign have been so fierce and so unrelenting, that I've relied on my faith a whole lot in this campaign," Ford said, insisting he had not crossed the line with the ad. "So it seemed pretty natural to me."
"He is a person whose way of life is being in politics," Corker charged. "This is, to him, not about a sense of mission, if you will, about solving our country's problems."
Chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos asked Ford message he means to convey by handing out business cards with the Ten Commandments on the back.
"Elect me, I know the difference between right and wrong," Ford said. "I don't always live my life perfect, but I try my hardest to follow somebody that does, and I just don't believe that, from looking at this politically, that Democrats ought to cede any ground to any Republican when it comes to morality and faith."
Corker continued to press Ford on the matter.
"This is a person whose way of life is being in politics -- and so when a race like this comes up, obviously, his voting record is very, very, very different than the way he portrays himself," Corker said. "He's running now to try to portray himself as someone who does, in fact, represent the values of Tennesseans, and that has not been the case over the last 10 years."
Asked by Stephanopoulos whether or not Ford is a "hypocrite," Corker replied, "I don't use words like that, but he's certainly running as somebody that he's not."
Ford also brushed back charges by the Corker campaign that the history of Ford's political family does not bode well for promoting the 36-year-old to the Senate.
The son of former Rep. Harold Ford, Sr., Ford comes from a powerful, if notorious, political family. Two of Ford's uncles resigned their legislative positions amid charges of bribery and fraud, and his father was also charged, but later acquitted, of similar charges.
Corker has "nothing else to campaign on," Ford countered. "He didn't mention anything about the Bush political machine. Our little family down here has run for city council, county commissioner, Congress and state senate. The Bush family has governors and former senators and former presidents. I'm sure he wouldn't call the Bush family a political machine, but he has a different standard when it comes to my family."
Corker denies that he has made Ford's family an issue in the campaign.
"There's never been a comment ever, never a personal comment ever made about the family," Corker said. "To talk about the Ford political machine, I mean, that's something that members of the press had written about for decades."
In a counterpunch, however, the Ford campaign has taken out ads claiming that Corker, while mayor of Chattanooga, voted himself pay raises while his personal fortunate grew due to the rapid development of his real estate business.
"That's another ridiculous distortion by the congressman and just absolutely absurd and untrue," Corker said.
"First of all, the mayor if Chattanooga doesn't vote on his own pay raises," Corker continued. "It's tied to another public official by charter."
On the charge that his net worth increased while in office, the former mayor retorted, "No local paper has ever said my net worth went up. That's absolutely not true. Not based on fact, no. Somebody might have speculated, but that's just not true. I may have followed the best opportunity in my career with low interest rates and what I do to really do well in that regard. And, certainly, I had no involvement in business during that time. And that's just not true."
Ford has also been on the attack on bigger issues.
"My opponent has yet to share whether or not he believes we should engage in bilateral talks with North Korea. He has yet to talk about whether we need a new strategy on the ground in Iraq. He actually said we should just stay the course," Ford charged.
Regarding Iraq, Corker claimed that Ford was taking his "stay the course" comments "out of context."
"When asked about whether we should leave Iraq before the people of Iraq were able to secure themselves, maybe that statement was made," Corker said. "As it relates to what we ought to do on the ground to ensure that we do that, we certainly need to listen to the military commanders. We need to be flexible in our approach and we need to do whatever is necessary to cause that to happen. And so that's different than just, if you will, staying the course and doing exactly what we're doing today, which is what was intended when I said that."
Corker argued that Ford is "out of step" with Tennesseans.
"I think it's really about somebody going to Washington that has been shaped by Tennessee values," he said. "I think that voters, voters, by the time these races end, have a true sense of who the person is."
Ford repeatedly invokes his faith.
"The Bible doesn't belong to any party or any candidate and I'm certainly not going to allow my opponent to make me something that I'm not," Ford told ABC News.
On moral issues, Ford treads carefully, meticulously explaining his 10-year voting record in Congress.
When asked by Stephanopoulos when he believes life begins, Ford, who describes himself as "pro-life" replied, "The goal here should be to reduce the number of abortions. We can debate day in and day out when it starts, when it doesn't start. The reality is we want to reduce the number and we've done nothing in this country for 50 years other than debate this."
When he first arrived in the House a decade ago, Ford voted against a ban on partial birth abortions, but has since voted in favor of such a ban numerous times. The Congressman explained the contradiction.
"It was a personal decision on my part. It had nothing to do with anything other than seeing something that said, 'You know what? The other side has a point on this,' " he told ABC News. "And I'm just a believer that we don't advance the cause of life nor do we advance any effort to promote a woman's inalienable rights or Supreme Court protected rights by allowing partial birth abortions. So I decided differently."
Corker claimed that the sudden resignation of Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., in the wake of revelations by ABC News regarding sexually explicit e-mails Foley had exchanged with former House pages had not affected the Senate race in Tennessee.
Nevertheless, Corker strongly rebuked Foley.
"I think it's absolutely deplorable that there are people who serve in those positions and who abuse those positions and take advantage of young people," he said. "And I think people across the country, regardless of what background, feel the same way."
The former mayor called for a "swift investigation."
"If there have been improprieties by leadership, if you will, people need to be punished," he added.
On the subject of a possible Democratic takeover in the House -- with the possibility perhaps increased by the Foley scandal, some experts say -- Ford did not necessarily come to the defense of his party's leader, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, R-Calif, who could become the lower chamber's next speaker.
"She's been my leader for four years, and I wish her the very best, but she's not on the ballot here and I'm not on the ballot the ballot in California," said Ford, who ran against Pelosi for a House leadership post in 2002.
Ford refused to engage the question of what would happen if a national tide were to take both Ford to the Senate and Pelosi to the top of the House.
"I'm running for the Senate. I'm running in a different chamber. The leader of the Senate would be a different person," he said. "But before we get there, I've got three weeks and two or three days to focus on and that's where my energy, where my focus and where my intensity will be over the next three and a half weeks."
And, if the past year of charges and countercharges have been any example, the last three weeks in Tennessee will surely be a barnburner.
Corker claims he's ready for that fight.
"What we need to do over the next 25 days," he said, "is the same thing that we've been doing.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of energy around our efforts and, again, I have to say I have faith in the voters of our state to see the true differences that exist between us and really to focus on our ability to work with other people to solve the complex issues that our country deals with," he added.
For his part, the feisty congressman who has made a race in a state that has not always been kind to its native sons or career politicians will certainly be fighting to the finish.
"Only voters know what they're going to do when they walk in that booth. But I've got to tell you, I'm a feel politician, F-E-E-L, and when I'm out all across this state, you feel it," Ford told ABC News. "I mean, the momentum is growing."
"We've got three hard, hard weeks in front of us," Ford concluded. "I don't think any candidate in the country -- a lot of them are going to take a lot of tough hits -- but I don't think anyone is going to take what we're going to take and have to endure over the next weeks."
Stephanopoulos' entire interviews with both Ford and Corker can be viewed at "This Week's" Web page at www.abcnews.com.