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Memphis, Tenn. — Amid all the maneuvering of potential presidential candidates during the Southern Republican Leadership Conference March 9-12, talk among home-state pundits and pols at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis tended to focus on the GOP nomination for U.S. senator in Tennessee this year. With Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist honoring a 1994 campaign promise to step down after two terms, three heavyweight Republicans are vying in the May primary for the GOP nomination to succeed him: conservative former Representatives Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant, and moderate Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga and a top official in the administration of former Republican Gov. (1994-2002) Don Sundquist.
 
Smelling a prospective net gain in their Senate minority, national Democrats have rallied behind Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., as their standard bearer in the only state in which a Republican U.S. senator is retiring this year. A former Clinton Administration official and scion of the best-known political family in Memphis (his namesake-father held the House seat for 22 years before young Ford succeeded him in 1996), the 35-year-old Ford was a keynote speaker at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
Like Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ford (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 19%) generally pleases liberals but takes a walk from the left on certain issues: He favors prayer in school, an anti-flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, the balanced budget amendment, cutting the capital gains taxes and repealing the death tax. The Tennessee lawmaker also supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Should Ford emerge triumphant in November, he would be only the second African-American to win statewide office in the South since Reconstruction. (The first was fellow Democrat Doug Wilder, who served as lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1985-89 and then governor from 1989-93. )

As formidable a candidate as Ford appears to be, Volunteer State Republicans I talked to at the Peabody generally agreed that if their eventual nominee is able to publicize the Democrat’s overall record (which includes opposition to a ban on partial-birth abortion), the GOP will retain Frist’s seat. Their premier worry is that Hilleary and Bryant will divide the conservative primary vote and allow Corker — who lost the ’94 Senate nomination to Frist (lifetime ACU rating: 89%) and is again the candidate of the party’s moderate establishment — to win with a plurality.
 
Tennessee is one of only two states in the South (the other is Florida) in which a candidate can win a plurality rather than a majority of primary votes and be nominated for office.