A three-way brawl on the Republican side of the Tennessee Senate race is setting the tone for a general election fight that could be a key battleground in the Democrats' campaign to turn over the U.S. Senate majority.

GOP leaders says it's imperative the best candidate be nominated to defend the seat being vacated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

"First of all, we welcome the challenge, but second of all, if we are the firewall, it's not going to break in Tennessee," said Bob Davis Jr., chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.

“We have to mobilize our Republican voters for November. We need a Republican nominee who excites the core of our Tennessee Republicans,” said former Tennessee Rep. Ed Bryant, one of the Republican candidates in Thursday's primary for the U.S. Senate race.

Democrats are betting that regardless of the Republican nominee, they have an excellent chance of picking up the office, and possibly, the chamber, with the likes of Rep. Harold Ford, Jr.

They know the stakes are high. Democrats need a net gain of six seats to wrest control of the Senate from the Republican majority. Ford is unopposed for the Democratic nomination, and virtually every Democratic scenario for winning control of the Senate depends on him winning the state.

“We feel confident about our position right now,” said Mark Brown, spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party. “[Ford] is a well-funded, well-organized candidate. [He] is such a dynamic person he’s got charisma to spare.”

“I think that in Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer’s world they have this vision that it all hinges on Tennessee,” Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Spokesman Brian Nick said of the Senate Democratic leader and Senate campaign committee chairman, respectively. “It’s the only seat Democrats [in Tennessee] have in play.”

However, “look at the last election and how well [Democrats] did in the Southeast,” Nick said, describing it as not too well.

Ford has positioned himself as a moderate in a state that went for President Bush in 2004. It is considered a Republican red state on the modern political map despite the fact five of the 11 congressional delegation are Democrats as is the governor.

“There are times when you hear what Ford is saying and you would think he is a Republican — but he has no choice,” said Union University political science professor Sean Evans. “He’s been running from the middle basically since the 2004 election.”

A 'Spirited' Primary

Despite the ruddy complexion of the southern political map these days, Ford’s supporters are not convinced he can’t win Tennessee and become the first black senator from the South since post-Civil War reconstruction.

Democrats also point to the three-way GOP primary as a boon that will allow them to sit back while Bryant, former Rep. Van Hilleary and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker pummel each other ahead of Thursday's contest.

“It’s just the bloodiest primary I have ever seen in Tennessee. Whatever candidate that comes out of it is just going to be extremely damaged,” Brown said.

“We’re running a spirited primary,” acknowledged Ben Mitchell, spokesman for GOP frontrunner Corker.

Nonetheless, Republicans say they will unite behind Thursday's winner and have no trouble remembering their collective nemesis.

“About a month ago, I talked to all of them, eyeballed all of our guys and they gave me their word they will support the nominee and I have no reason to believe they will go back on their word,” said Davis, noting that all the candidates agree that “Harold Ford Jr. has no business serving in the United States Senate.”

But much of the news coming out of the Tennessee Senate race has been about negative ads and attacks in the Republican primary. In recent weeks, Bryant and Hilleary, who both served in the House from 1994 through 2002, have directed their ire at Corker, who they say isn’t conservative enough to contrast Ford in November.

“You’re going to need a clearer contrast to mobilize these voters, which means you need a conservative,” said Bryant, who considers border security, government overspending and energy prices key issues of the election.

Corker has shot back in recent ads, calling Bryant and Hilleary the “twins” who couldn’t get things done in Congress when they had the chance.

The volume has gotten so loud that both Frist and Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole have publicly urged restraint and unity.

So far, the political winds appear to be with Corker, who has raised more than the others — partly thanks to a $2.1 million infusion of his own money — and is leading in all recent independent polls, including ones pitting him against Ford on Election Day.

A July poll by the Chattanooga Times Free Press found Corker leading Ford 49 percent to 36 percent of likely registered voters statewide.

Ford: Can’t Pick Your Family

The real choice for Tennesseans, says Mitchell, comes down to Corker and Ford, “who has spent a lifetime in Washington.”

Ford has served in office for five terms but also spent his childhood in private school in Washington, D.C., while his father, Harold Ford Sr., served in the U.S. House for 22 years. Ford, 36, returned to Washington after college. He worked as a staffer on the Senate Budget Committee and a special assistant in the U.S. Department of Commerce before running for the House in 1996.

His opponents call him a liberal in conservative clothing. “If we talk about issues, Ford is sunk," Davis said. "In regard to guns, taxes and Tennessee family values type of issues, he’s dead wrong on all of them.”

Brown said the congressman has heard it all before.

"[Ford] loves his God and he loves his guns and he's not afraid to talk about it with anyone," he said. "I just don't think the old tripe about him being too liberal is going to work anymore."

But Evans said the biggest problem facing Ford "won’t be his record, but his name."

The Memphis-based Ford family goes way back in Tennessee politics, but the family has recently cast a long shadow over the candidate warmly dubbed “Jr.”

Ford’s father was acquitted on federal bank fraud charges in 1993 after six years of litigation. His uncle Emmitt resigned from the state House in 1981 after a conviction of insurance fraud. His other uncle John resigned from the state Senate last year after being charged with taking bribes. His trial is set for October, just weeks before the general election.

Ford, who has been striving to be his own brand of centrist Democrat, tried to write off his family history at a recent Democratic Party event.

“When you figure out the recipe to fix a family, call me,” Ford joked. “Otherwise, let us run for the Senate. When you have nothing to talk about, you talk about those issues.”

Still, the family might be a drag on Ford as voters could confuse the names when it comes time to vote, Evans said. Some may associate Ford with the older generation’s style of politicking as well, he said.

“He has to deal with a lot of the negative associations that people have with the Ford name,” Evans said.

Brown argued against that claim, saying voters are not easily confused.

“Tennessee voters see right through that. By the time Election Day gets here, and Jr. gets his message out, I don’t think anyone will be confused about who he is.”

Larry Sabato, director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia, said Ford is going to need more than family distinctions to win this race. He'll need something like a flood in favor of Democrats in November. But given the way the national mood has been trending against Republicans, it is not impossible, he said.

“If there is a wave, all bets are off,” Sabato said. “If so, even Republican candidates like Bob Corker will be vulnerable. We simply won’t know about that until November.”