CAMDEN, Tenn. -- When a Dubai company bid to take over U.S. port operations, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. rushed to Baltimore's waterfront and beamed a TV ad back to his landlocked home state.
Accusing President Bush of outsourcing port security, the Democratic congressman promised he would "fight to protect America and keep your families safe."
Tough talk on homeland security is just one of the ways the telegenic U.S. Senate candidate from Tennessee is playing against type - and hoping to pull off the most remarkable upset of this election year.
"I won't let them make me something I'm not," Ford defiantly declares. In a campaign commercial shot in a church sanctuary, he boasts of his House votes for the USA Patriot Act and $5 trillion in defense spending, and against amnesty for "illegals."
Republican setbacks in Washington, endless bad news from Iraq and Bush's sagging popularity have given Democrats an unexpected chance to pick up the Senate seat of retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Ford, whose centrist image seems carefully tailored to this Southern state, may be the most gifted campaigner of 2006. Brash, energetic and possessed of Bill Clinton-like charm, he has a chance to win a race that once seemed out of reach and help Democrats gain control of the Senate.
It would also open a new chapter in the evolution of American politics. A member of the state's most famous - some would say infamous - black political clan, Ford would become the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South and gain overnight prominence on the national scene.
Ivy League-educated (University of Pennsylvania), he has more in common with new-generation politicians such as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (Columbia University) and Massachusetts gubernatorial nominee Deval Patrick (Harvard), than with his father, former Rep. Harold E. Ford Sr., and other veterans of the civil rights era.
The elder Ford was acquitted in 1993 on federal bank fraud charges, and the candidate's uncle John Ford is awaiting trial on bribery charges. Another of his father's brothers, former state Rep. Emmitt Ford, was convicted of insurance fraud in 1981.
Harold Jr., as he's known, says he "can't do anything about" his relatives and asks voters to judge him on his own record. His Republican opponent, Bob Corker, reminds voters that Ford's "family business is being in politics."
A new attack ad, sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, accuses Ford of partying at Playboy magazine's Super Bowl bash and wonders: "What kind of man is Harold Ford?" Ford, a bachelor, brushes off the negative ads as "X-rated slime" and "lies," though, he confesses, "I do like girls."
The Republican, attacked in Democratic ads for allegedly hiring illegal immigrants in his construction business, freely admits he can't match his rival's star power.
"I know I'm not as good looking, [and] I can't speak as well," says Corker, 54. The former Chattanooga mayor is counting on his personal wealth and the state's decidedly Republican bent to fend off the 36-year-old Ford.
Ford's considerable talents were on display yesterday in Camden, a west Tennessee town best known as the place where country singer Patsy Cline died in a 1963 plane crash.
Everywhere he went, Ford tried to reassure white voters that "I don't look like you, but I share your values." Mindful that Democrats here believe that Al Gore lost his home state in 2000 on the issues of guns and abortion, he told local radio station WFWL: "I fear my God just like you do, and I'm not going to take anyone's gun."
Wearing a camouflage-colored campaign hat and black cowboy boots, he stood in the parking lot of the local Chevy dealership and challenged his Republican foe to a skeet-shooting contest. At the local farm co-op, he pointed his index finger to the sky and told a CBS newsman down from New York that "if we win this race, my Lord will have a lot to do with it."
At the Catfish Place restaurant, he delighted a lunchtime rally of local whites by using the national press corps as a foil.
"They came down because they can't believe you voting for me," he says, speaking colloquially. To loud squeals of laughter, he made light of his own skin color: "Some of y'all 'bout darker than me."
Ford's candidacy is going over well with voters such as Steve Pettyjohn, 45, a local contractor who voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s but says he is backing Ford because there are "no checks and balances" in Washington now that Republicans control the entire government.
Bobby Gray, 58, another local businessman, says that, with events in Iraq running out of control, he deeply regrets voting for Bush in 2004.
"I'm going to vote for Harold Ford Jr.," he says. "I know part of his family has had problems, but I guess we all could dig around and find somebody in our family that we're not particularly proud of."
To prevail, Ford badly needs the support of conservative rural white voters, many of whom have drifted away from the Democrats over the years. Tennessee has a much smaller proportion of black residents than neighboring Deep South states (and barely half that of Maryland), and white voters will cast more than 85 percent of the vote next month.
An independent statewide poll by Mason-Dixon, released this week, has Ford ahead by 1 percentage point. But public opinion surveys are notoriously unreliable when one of the candidates is black.
Campaign strategists often subtract a "racial slippage" factor, to account for surveys that might exaggerate a black candidate's strength by up to 9 percentage points.
In North Carolina, a Mason-Dixon poll a week before the 1990 election gave black Democrat Harvey Gantt a 4-point lead over Republican Sen. Jesse Helms; Gantt lost by 6 percentage points. In the 1989 Virginia governor's race, L. Douglas Wilder, a black Democrat, had an 11-point poll advantage a week before the election; he won by less than 1 point.
Citing the "Wilder effect," Vanderbilt University political scientist Christian Grose wonders whether many Tennesseans who say they're undecided - roughly one in seven voters - might simply be unwilling to tell pollsters they won't back a black candidate.
But "if there's a year that an African-American Democrat can win in Tennessee," he added, "this is it."
On top of problems facing Republicans nationwide, including the Mark Foley sex scandal, which has begun to resonate here, Corker has struggled to unite his party after a divisive primary.
Republican state Sen. David Fowler, who directs the Tennessee arm of Focus on the Family, describes the mood of social conservatives as "a bit sluggish." The negative tone of the Senate campaign has "frustrated" some religious conservatives, he says, and they might sit out the race in this state, the silver buckle on the Bible Belt and headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
Anti-abortion activist Lynn Chaffin of Tennessee Right to Life says Corker, whose anti-abortion credentials were questioned in the primary, has "work to do" to motivate grass-roots Republicans.
Tom Ingram, the state's most experienced Republican strategist, who took over Corker's campaign in a major shake-up last week, says the climate for Republicans in Tennessee might be the worst since the post-Watergate election of 1974.
"Even Gore might could carry the state right now," says Chris Whitson, a Nashville lawyer and Republican activist.
Like Gore, Ford grew up in Washington as a politician's son and attended the same prestigious prep school, St. Alban's. Gore chose Ford to give the keynote speech at the 2000 Democratic convention and has been active in raising money for him.
Ford's campaign plan, years in the making, blends impressive political skills with perhaps the most conservative voting record in the Congressional Black Caucus.
Defying the stereotype of an urban Democrat, the Memphis congressman has voted for Republican efforts to eliminate the estate tax and backed conservative social issues such as prayer in public school and a constitutional ban on flag burning.
Ford praises Reagan ("I'm a big fan") and other Republicans, eagerly promotes his votes for putting the Ten Commandments in public places and protecting gun manufacturers against lawsuits, and his opposition to gay marriage. He takes frequent shots at politicians in Washington, where he has served for more than a decade, as "those people."
He stood with Bush at the White House after voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq (but now calls that vote a mistake and favors Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s plan to split Iraq into three federations). Corker, who supports Bush's Iraq policy, is trying to portray Ford as the incumbent in the race and himself as the outsider.
In 2002, Ford unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leader, arguing that she was too liberal for the country. For years, he's proudly declared that he can't be "put in a box" when it comes to ideology.
Ford "has been knocking on this door for a long time," says Roy Neel, a longtime Gore adviser. If any black candidate can win a Senate seat from the South, "it would be Harold."