KNOXVILLE, Tenn., Oct. 26, 2006 — -- One of the fiercest fights this election cycle is taking place in Tennessee, where a bitter contest that hints of sex and allegations of racism may determine control of the Senate.
In this race, Bob Corker should be coasting. He's a Republican running in a conservative red state that was carried twice by President Bush, so his prospects should be quite good.
But his Democratic opponent, Rep. Harold Ford, has proved to be a more adept campaigner and has insinuated at every stop that Corker's undeniable wealth includes ill-gotten gains.
Ford is also tying the Republican to the unpopular war in Iraq, and the president. Said Ford, "I'm running as an American who wants to help provide better leadership in Washington."
Corker plays up both Ford's youth (Ford is 36), and the fact that the congressman, who is in turn the son of a congressman, has spent much of his life in Washington.
"I truly believe that our country faces the most difficult issues we've faced in my adult lifetime," Corker tells audiences while campaigning, adding, "What people really want in the United States Senate is somebody who thinks like they think."
But Ford is hard to pigeonhole. He has a moderate to conservative voting record: pro guns, pro Bible, against same-sex marriage. Those positions have made it hard for Corker to go after Ford in the traditional way.
"When this race first started, Harold Ford didn't have a chance," said self-professed Democrat Billy G. Smith in Cookville, Tenn.. "But Harold Ford's in this race now."
So faced with the loss of a must-win Senate seat to maintain their control, the Republicans have shifted away from Ford's politics in their ads to his persona.
There's a whole Web site now, named Fancy Ford that is produced and directed by Republicans intent on undermining Ford by going after his personal style. There are references to his taste for expensive suits, lavish parties and expensive cigars. The belief is they will not go down well in parts of rural Tennessee.
And there are the TV commercials.
One draws on Ford's attendance at a Playboy magazine Super Bowl party last year -- a commercial under the auspices of the Republican National Committee, that many see as containing racial overtones.
First it lampoons Ford's political positions, and then a blond woman in a suggestive pose says she "met" him at the Playboy party.
After a few more digs, the spot ends with her driving the point home, flirtatiously saying "Harold: Call me."
To many the message is clear, and in some parts of Tennessee, potentially incendiary with its accusations of a rendezvous between a white woman and Ford, an African-American.
"It is talking about interracial sex, interracial relationships, I mean it's really quite amazing and it's not the kind of ad you'd expect somebody to be running if they thought they were ahead or at least in a tie," said John Geer, the editor of the Journal of Politics at Vanderbilt University.
Corker, the man the ad was intended to benefit, has now said it should be withdrawn.
"We've run a very classy campaign. It's been one that's focused on the issues," he told ABC News. "We've taken the high road in this race, and I think the ads are tacky."
Ford said the attack ad means one thing.
"I think the Republicans have gotten very nervous, and they realize that there's not one substantive issue that favors them with voters," he said in an interview on his campaign bus. "Our message is resonating. Otherwise they wouldn't be running these ads," he said.
"You get desperate when you want to hold on to power, and you do awful things," he said.
At a Ford rally, we ran into Sharon Potts of Cookville, Tenn. "Normally, I'm an independent," she said, "but this time I'm voting Democratic."
"I'm tired of the negativity," she went on. "I'm tired of having to turn on the TV and turn the channel, because it's like one more sleaze campaign going on."
Late Wednesday the Republican National Committee said the controversial commercial would be dropped, and while officials still defend it, they acknowledge the response was negative.
In the next two weeks, they'll know if it did its job, or if it was a risk they should never have taken. Ford and Corker will debate each other for the last time in this campaign on Saturday at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.