MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Democrat Harold Ford Jr. loves to tell the story about his unscheduled campaign stop at the Little Rebel Drive-In in Jackson, where Confederate flag bumper stickers are standard in the parking lot.
A row of curious faces turned to stare as the black lawmaker from Memphis entered the restaurant. Ford talked about politics and his campaign for the Senate, and he found the customers warming to him. They even let him affix campaign stickers to their cars and the restaurant's refrigerator.
"The people were very receptive and very supportive," said the 36-year-old congressman. "I've been back there since. It really just speaks to the idea of the campaign of talking to everyone everywhere."
Private school-polished, charismatic and defiantly conservative on the Iraq war, gay marriage and other issues, Ford is the Democratic hope to win the open Senate seat being vacated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and make inroads for a party on the outs in the South.
But Ford faces a number of obstacles, starting with the obvious: No black man has been elected to the Senate from a Southern state since Reconstruction. For that matter, only five blacks have been elected to the Senate.
"Race is always a factor when people vote," said Michael Grillot, 50, a businessman from Franklin. "Whether you're black or white, it always is a factor."
Tennessee has a smaller black population (about 17 percent) than other Southern states, putting a greater emphasis on Ford's need to appeal to white voters. Even before he formally declared his candidacy, Ford spent plenty of time in eastern Tennessee, an area with few minorities.
"The black population in that part of the state is so small that you can't say it's a problem because no one's really tried," said Christian Grose, an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.
Tennessee hasn't elected a Democratic senator in 16 years. Western Tennessee and the predominantly black city of Memphis — Ford's base — traditionally vote Democratic while the mountains of eastern Tennessee are Republican.
Securing the support of the swing voters in middle Tennessee will be critical, but that region, like the rest of the South, trends to the political right. Democrat Al Gore failed to carry his home state in the 2000 presidential election.
Mary A. Lewis, 60, a Memphis homemaker, said Ford represents a new breed of leadership.
"He's come up in a different time and will do different things," Lewis said. "The older heads need to sit down and let the younger ones take over."
But James Wolfe, 35, who lives in Memphis but leans Republican, said Ford is a far cry from conservative.
"It seems like he lets his dad tell him what to do," said Wolfe, referring to Harold Ford Sr., who served in the House for 22 years.
In Tennessee, President Bush's approval ratings are down, and the governor is a Democrat, Phil Bredesen, who won a closely contested race in 2002. Bill Clinton carried the state in 1992 and 1996.
The younger Ford, who was first elected to Congress in 1996 at the age of 26, seems to have learned a lesson from Bredesen and Clinton: Accentuate the conservative.
He speaks well of Bush and backed the president's capital gains tax cuts. Ford has supported constitutional amendments protecting school prayer and banning gay marriage; the latter will be on the state ballot in November.
"It's a longer shot for Democrats in the South," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "Ford's doing what a Democrat needs to be doing in order to be competitive."
Ford comes from a powerful Memphis political family, with eight members who have served as state lawmakers, local politicians or in Congress. His father has 11 siblings, and Ford has said he has 91 first cousins.
But the family has been touched by scandal.
His father was tried and acquitted on federal bank fraud charges in 1993. His uncle, Emmitt, resigned from the state House in 1981 after a conviction on insurance fraud. Another uncle, John, resigned from the state Senate last year after being charged with taking $55,000 in bribes. He has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is set for October, within weeks of the election.
Ford Jr. confronts his family's reputation head-on during campaign stops, telling critics to "shut up" and asking voters to consider his record instead of his family's problems.
"When you figure out the recipe to fix a family, call me," he said at a recent Democratic Party event. "Otherwise, let us run for the Senate. When you have nothing else to talk about, you talk about those issues."
Edward Gilbert, a food services worker in Knoxville, said Ford's family woes won't be an issue in how he votes. "You don't hear very much about it anymore," he said.
Republicans will settle on a candidate in the Aug. 3 primary, with the three top candidates embroiled in a fierce fight. Ford faces no major opposition in securing his party's nod.
Bob Corker, the former Chattanooga mayor and state finance commissioner, is seen as the Republican front-runner with nearly $5.5 million in campaign cash, more than his two major opponents, former Reps. Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, combined. But Bryant and Hilleary have strong support among conservatives, and no one is willing to concede.
Ford, who has raised $5.7 million for the campaign, talks to voters about growing up in a family that required two things of him: going to church and campaigning for his political family members.