Crew members at the Gallatin Fire Department serve their barbecue with sauce on the side and prefer only straight talk from their politicians.
So they were in no mood for jokes when with 89 days before the Nov. 7 vote to choose Tennessee's next U.S. senator, Congressman Harold Ford Jr. rolled into town Thursday on his bus tour and launched into a familiar routine.
"I come from a big family in Memphis, you may have heard about them," Ford offered.
A few dry chuckles.
The Memphis Democrat's focus on the war in Iraq, the need for alternative energy sources and opposition to gay marriage went over considerably better.
"That's huge. He'll probably get a lot of Republicans with that right there. A lot of guys wanted to ask him, but they were scared. They thought folks would jump on them," said firefighter David Brinegear. "I never voted for a Democrat, but he's probably the one I'd vote for."
The toughest battle to replace Sen. Bill Frist will be fought in places such as Gallatin in Sumner County -- population 26,720 -- and the hundreds of similar communities that dot Middle Tennessee. Republican-trending bedroom communities around Nashville flourish in the state's belt buckle, while independent- leaning people in rural towns have watched farms struggle and factories close.
Ford's campaign is tight-lipped on its geographical strategy, as is Republican opponent Bob Corker's. However, political experts and officials from both parties said that winning must involve a tripartite game plan for conquering Tennessee.
Middle Tennessee is key in that plan.
During the first few days of his Road to Victory campaign tour last week, Ford rode his biodiesel-fueled bus across the state on a mission to galvanize support for his campaign. Quite a few of those stops included visits to suburban enclaves, farms and town hubs in the state's middle region.
"You've got to spend more time in those areas," said Randy Button, director of the Democratic Victory 2006 coordinated campaign. "That's part of the strategy."
That strategy also involves acknowledging and addressing public perceptions of both the parties' and the candidates' weaknesses.
For Ford, that means holding the line in the Democratic- leaning west while keeping losses to a minimum in the solidly Republican east. Political experts caution that Ford, a moderate black Democrat from a prominent, embattled political family, faces an uphill battle in the eastern part of the state.
However, both campaigns have vowed to fight for every inch of the state.
In Dover, west of Gallatin, Cindy's Catfish Kitchen is the place to be when it comes to cornbread and politics. The local Kiwanis Club meets there every Thursday, and the Dover Chamber of Commerce's annual banquet is a guaranteed sell-out.
But as an anxious crowd of Democratic supporters and the just plain curious awaited Ford's arrival on Wednesday, there was some confusion on exactly who the Senate hopeful is.
"I don't know much about him except what they said about his family on TV," said restaurant owner Cindy Luffman, shaking her head. "Y'know that lady? What's the one? Ophelia."
Later, as a young black Ford staffer made his way through the crowd, the roughly 70-person gathering began to applaud. Realizing it wasn't Ford, the group tittered and resumed its vigil.
"We have a very small black population so please forgive us," said Rita Tinsley, a local veterinarian.
Likewise, fresh from a contentious primary against former U.S. congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, Corker is working overtime to define himself to voters as more than a multimillionaire with higher political aspirations. He is challenged with defending his eastern base while averting a complete loss in the west.
"I think he's got a lot of work to do to introduce himself to the general election voter," said Jennifer Duffy, an editor and political analyst for the Cook Political Report, an online analysis of electoral politics. "It's a definition issue. He has to do that pivot from far right to moderate and he has to inoculate himself against the charges Bryant and Hilleary made."
Democrats hope to ride a wave of GOP backlash this fall from an electorate weary of the ongoing war in Iraq, high gasoline prices and increased deficits. Republicans said their records on tax cuts and national defense coupled with Democratic identity struggles will ensure that the Tennessee seat stays in the red.
In November, there will be 33 Senate seats and 435 House seats on the ballot, including that of Republican Frist. The Tennessee race is one of six closely watched Senate battles that could sway the balance of congressional power.
The Democrats would need to gain six Senate seats and 15 House seats to win a congressional majority.
But such victories depend on a delicate numerical balance at the city and county level. Political experts point to the 2004 presidential election as a strong indicator as to how the votes tend to play out in Middle Tennessee.
A strong Shelby County showing could also prove critical to a Senate win, said Karl Schledwitz, a Democratic Party activist and former Sen. Jim Sasser's first campaign manager.
"If (Harold Ford Jr.) wins the Senate it will be because of disproportionately high African- American turnout," Schledwitz said. "Harold is also going to have to find some place in East Tennessee where he does better than normal."
If the 300-plus Tennessee farmers gathered at the Cool Springs Marriott hotel near Brentwood Thursday were any indication, Ford and Corker are in a near dead-heat.
Both men received standing ovations from Farm Bureau meeting attendees. Both spoke of the importance of tightening controls on immigration and the need for greater fiscal accountability on the Hill.
And after a week of debate challenges in which Ford constantly asked voters "If you see Bob Corker tell him I'm looking for him," both men missed each other by mere feet in the meeting hall.
Their views were blocked by a thick cluster of voters in the middle of the aisle.
Source: The Commercial Appeal