WASHINGTON – Five-term Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (search), plans to jump in quickly to fill the void when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announces he is stepping down at the end of his term in 2006, leaving a Tennessee Senate seat wide open.
"I intend to run as a candidate for U.S. Senate. In the coming months, I will continue to travel across the state and listen to the issues that matter to most Tennesseans — tax reform, the economy, health care, fiscal responsibility ... national security and social security," Ford told FOXNews.com.
National Republicans often insist that no Democrat can win statewide office in the Red State south. But Ford's supporters say that GOP bluster won't deter the congressman's well-laid plans.
“Obviously, we’re excited at the possibility that Harold Ford would run – he’s a rising star on the congressional scene and we would be extremely lucky to have him as our United States senator,” said Jim Hester, executive director of the Tennessee Democratic Party.
Nonetheless, Republicans are quick to label what could be a formidable challenger to any Republican nominee.
“The difficulty that Congressman Ford will have is answering to the traditional liberal special interest groups and the national party and trying to stay in mainstream of where Tennessee voters are,” said Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Sources say Ford's official candidacy could coincide with Frist's formal announcement of his resignation. They add that the 34-year-old, former Capitol Hill staffer and special assistant in the Clinton administration has been laying the groundwork and putting out feelers that are for real this time despite prior quashed inquiries into potential Senate runs.
Ford took over his seat from his father, Harold Ford Sr., who represented the district — most of which is in Shelby County in greater Memphis — for 22 years. Before his election, Ford worked on the Clinton-Gore transition team in 1993 and appears to have been attracted to Clinton’s “New Democrat” approach, supporting in part fiscal responsibility and moderate positions on social issues.
Ford, a familiar face on television news interviews and often called on as a spokesman for the party, has not hesitated to vote with conservatives on key issues such as banning partial-birth abortion or for prayer in school. He voted to give President Bush authorization to invade Iraq and for cuts in the capital gains tax.
He has also stood firm with Democrats over protecting affirmative action policies, banning oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and opposing Bush’s tax cuts. Aside from being a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (search), he is also a member of the New Democrat Caucus (search) and the Blue Dog Coalition (search), which counts as its members Democrats with fiscally moderate views.
“If you have the ability to deliver a message crisply and effectively and you can relate to voters, you can transcend a whole lot of racial and political boundaries,” said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., who with Ford is a member of the CBC and among the House’s southern black representatives.
Unlike many members of the CBC, Ford has “positioned himself as a centrist,” Davis said. “I think it will enable him to break out of the pack that black Democrats are pushed to in the South.”
Referred to as the “Prince of Memphis” and “a poster boy for the New Democrats” by the Metro Pulse Online magazine in Knoxville, Tenn., Ford was named one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in the World in 2001. Some compared his celebrity with that of new Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (search), the only black U.S. senator currently in office. Obama’s successes portend good things for Ford and for black Democrats overall, some backers said.
“I think Harold has the same kind of potential for being an enormously effective candidate," Davis said.
“He is an attractive candidate because he is young, he does well on television, he likes to be on television and he doesn’t seem to be beholden to the civil rights-era type Democrats,” said Nathan Gonzales, analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report.
But all the positive attributes can be made to look bad in a GOP spotlight, Gonzales added.
Republicans "will try everything they can to brand him a liberal and make sure people know the party from which he comes,” he said.
In fact, Republicans say Ford hasn’t a shot of winning a statewide race in Tennessee, which has two Republican senators and earned a Republican majority in the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. But the state also has a Democratic governor and a Democratic-led House Assembly. Tennessee voters went for Bush over Sen. John Kerry 57 percent to 43 percent in the last election.
“There has been a huge seismic shift in Tennessee. … I think it is going to be very difficult for anybody right now to stem that tide,” said Hans Klingler, a political consultant with Jim Arnold & Associates, a Texas-based firm working with one of the potential Republican candidates for Frist’s seat, former Rep. Ed Bryant.
“I don’t underestimate Congressman Ford at all and his family has been involved in West Tennessee politics for years, but I think it will be difficult to run against the partisan change in Tennessee right now,” Klingler added.
State Democratic chairman Hester shrugs off Republicans’ comments, pointing to strong southern Democrats like Tennessee's own governor, Phil Bredesen (search), Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Gov. Michael Easley in North Carolina. “We’re strong in the state and we’re strong locally. We haven’t fared well on the national stage, but things are cyclical and that will change.”
Other observers wonder whether Ford should expect some resistance from his left flank. Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute (search) at the University of Maryland and an active Democrat, said he and more liberal black Democrats are concerned with some of Ford’s policy positions.
“He’s been carving out a profile as a Blue Dog Democrat (search) and hoping that would be sufficient, to allow him to be competitive. Because of that, some have considered him to be too conservative – I am one of them,” he said.
"I think he is doing the right thing in running for Senate in Tennessee,” Walters added, but nonetheless Ford is on a “folly-type mission” for thinking he can win in a conservative state by mimicking conservative Republicans.
Most agree that Ford is unlikely to face a tough Democratic primary. Republicans are already showing interest in competing for the GOP primary, including Bryant, state Rep. Beth Harwell, Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker and former Rep. Van Hilleary.
Though often on different sides of the issue, it does seem that members of the CBC, as well as Ford's fellow Blue Dogs, see the promise in his potential candidacy.
"There has been no formal decision made regarding Harold Ford's candidacy," said Rep. Al Wynn, D-Md., head of the CBC's political wing, "but I am confident that the Congressional Black Caucus PAC would consider him favorably. I anticipate we will give him as much support as we did Senator Obama."