A GOP Balancing Act

Bob Corker needed to add some flair to his flagging campaign. The GOP candidate should have been running a simple Senate race in conservative Tennessee. But he was trailing by several points last month, so the White House and party leaders stepped in. Their solution: a new campaign manager in the form of a rumpled, martini-drinking, cigar-chewing veteran of Tennessee politics. Back in 1978, Tom Ingram helped transform a lackluster candidate for governor--Lamar Alexander--by dressing him in a folksy red plaid shirt. And it was Ingram who put Fred Thompson in a red pickup truck in his 1994 Senate race, turning the Hollywood actor and lawyer into a good ole boy.

What could Ingram change about Corker, the starchy former mayor of Chattanooga? Everything but his clothes, apparently. Speaking to a group of sheriffs last week, Corker was buttoned up in a charcoal pin-striped suit. ("We need to change that," Ingram later grumbled in a Nashville bar.) Still, Ingram has helped turn the Corker campaign around with new ads and a new message--that Corker is a self-made businessman from Tennessee, while his opponent, Harold Ford Jr., has never held a real job outside Washington politics. Ingram dropped ads attacking Ford as a liberal, replacing them with references to the Ford family machine--and by extension, the African-American politics of Memphis. "I'm the candidate of change," Corker told NEWSWEEK over a bowl of chili in a Jackson diner. "My opponent certainly hasn't shown much independence. He votes with his party 80 percent of the time."

Stuck with an unpopular president and an even less appealing party, Corker is distancing himself from the White House and the GOP-led Congress. Yet he also needs the conservative base to turn out to vote--and they are unsettled by his divided loyalties. When Corker stopped by conservative talk radio in Nashville, the questions were unusually hostile. "I know I'm not going to vote for Harold Ford," said one caller after Corker left the studio. "But it's like the lesser of two evils."

Many social conser-vatives have been wary of Corker since the primaries, when his rivals portrayed him as a pro-choice Democrat. (Tennessee Right to Life has not endorsed Corker because he once opposed limits on state funding for abortion.) More recently, Corker has moved to heal the rift with his primary foes. Former congressman Ed Bryant, who once campaigned as "the real conservative" against Corker, is stumping for him in rural west Tennessee. "Bob may not be as intense as I am," Bryant told NEWSWEEK, "but he's a solid conservative."

Solid may be the best Corker can do, and he's trying to make it his virtue. "I know I'm not the best-looking candidate in this race," he told the group of stony-faced sheriffs. "I know I'm not the most articulate." But he is still the most conservative, and that might just be enough.