Monday, April 17, 2006

Ford Campaigns With A Healthy Share Of "It"

Whatever ‘it" is, Harold Ford, Jr. appears to have a healthy share.

"It" is a quality that separates average politicians from political stars, or those who have the ability to reach such heights.

Seeking the U.S. Senate seat held for 12 years by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is a political life-changing undertaking for Ford in more ways than just personal. If he’s successful it will alter the national political structure within Tennessee.

Some 200 pumped-up people were at Knoxville’s Foundry on April 11, awaiting the entrance of the not-quite 36-year-old, five-term congressman from Memphis. They were there not just to hear him speak on energy independence, but for something else.

To feel "it."

Energy surrounds Ford and his campaign. Ford’s campaign staff members have the excited look of Kentucky Derby entry owners whose horse, they’re sure, is the biggest and fastest in the race.

With State Sen. Rosalind Kurita dropping out of the contest, Ford now has a potential distraction off his plate. He can focus exclusively on the issues he wants to promote while letting his potential Republican opponents battle it out for their party’s nomination.

Ford and every state political observer fully expect the Republican mantra to be that he’s a liberal out of the Tennessee mainstream. His father, Harold Ford, certainly established a liberal voting record during his 22 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. Thus, a topic of regular political discussion is whether Ford’s stated political moderation is a result of pragmatism or conviction.

If he’s not sincere, he’s doing a remarkable job of presenting himself as someone who is sincere.

In his Tuesday talk Ford spoke about how he upsets some Democrats because of his positions that run counter to the national party’s dogma. For example, he says he opposes gay marriage and gun control.

That doesn’t mean Ford is to the right of Republicans Ed Bryant, Bob Corker or Van Hilleary. But he’s defying being pigeon-holed on the left, either.

The people in the room on Tuesday didn’t care that he isn’t in lock-step with Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi (who Ford ran against for the Democratic House leadership) or Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.

Ford is not going to adhere to the national media’s or the national party’s image of what a Democratic candidate should say or believe. He can’t do that and win in Tennessee.

What Ford wants is to engage. He’s like a combat soldier who wants to close with the enemy. Both during and Tuesday event and in a conversation afterwards, he brought up issue after issue and said, "We need to debate these during this campaign, and I look forward to it."

More than something he looks forward to, such engagement is something he clearly craves.

On Tuesday he was straightforward about his thoughts on Social Security and younger workers. He advocates reforming Social Security in part by telling Americans under 40 years old not to expect a Social Security check until they’re 70 as a means of helping the system.

He says he would like to see pork barrel spending by Congress eliminated until the country again has a balanced budget.

Ford spoke about having been to Iraq four times as he called for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation.

And, as many candidates do, he said the U.S. must wean itself from dependence on Middle East oil.

Ford referenced several times how he sometimes upsets Democrats with his positions. He means Democrats way over on the left, the kind of voters who, if a candidate panders to them, will cost that candidate an election in Tennessee.

Ford understands that elections are won and lost in the center mass of the electorate. Gone are the days when an Albert Gore, Jr. could present himself as a moderate-to-conservative in Tennessee and turn hard left when he got back to Washington. Tennessee and its political nature have changed.

Whether the Republican candidate is Bryant, Corker or Hilleary, he is going to have his hands very, very full with Harold Ford, Jr., who has carefully and adroitly positioned himself to defy easy categorization.

When they hit him, he’s going to hit back, articulately. He does not have any intention of letting his opponents define him.

Over the next few months, Tennessee is going to get a good dose of "it." We’ll see how "it" works for Harold Ford, Jr.