Harold Ford still has a future in politics

If Rep. Harold Ford decides to run again for the Senate in 2008, he’ll find a different political landscape. And it could be less hospitable, political experts say.

Even so, the Memphis Democrat’s loss by only 2.7 percentage points to Republican Bob Corker last month would still leave him a viable candidate to take on Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., whose first term ends in two years.

Ford said he hasn’t made his mind up yet about what he’ll do when his 10-year career in the House ends next month. He refused to confirm or deny a Los Angeles Times report that he told students at an L.A.-area school last week that he will probably run again in two years.

The newspaper said Ford was in L.A. thanking entertainment- industry supporters of his campaign. He spoke at a Santa Monica elementary school attended by the children of one of his biggest backers, Fox Cable executive Lindsay Gardner.

Asked about the newspaper story, Ford said through his office, "I have no plans to run for political office in two years. However, I won’t ever stop working to make Tennessee and America safer and better. … During this time out of politics, I will find ways to be a part of building a future our kids will be proud to inherit and fight for."

Thanking his supporters in Nashville last month, Ford said he didn’t think "politics is out of my blood in any way. The great governor of California said he loves sequels and if I could borrow a line from one of his movies, ‘I’ll be back’," he said.

While Ford wouldn’t have to make a decision as soon as a lesser known candidate, he would have to start laying the groundwork and raising campaign money by mid- to late 2007.

Ford, 36, would likely have more serious opposition for the Democratic nomination. Outgoing state party chairman Bob Tuke, a hard-charging ex-Marine and Nashville lawyer, is considering a race.

Alexander, 66, is almost certain to run again. "I’m serving as if I will be running for re-election and I’ll make a decision early next year," he said.

Alexander — the former two-term governor, U.S. Education secretary and University of Tennessee president — would be more formidable than Corker. Before the 2006 Senate race, Corker last run statewide 12 years ago and was not well known before a $17 million campaign.

In its first rankings of the 2008 Senate races, the respected Cook Political Report puts Alexander’s seat in the "Solid Republican" column. Last month, Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan newsletter of electoral politics, said he "would be flabbergasted if Ford" challenges Alexander.

"When you have one statewide loss under your belt, you don’t do something like that. Alexander would be too hard to beat," Cook told The Commercial Appeal after the election.

But few Tennessee experts would rule Ford out.

"Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. What we know right now, though, is that Harold Ford Jr. made a pretty good showing last month. He lost, but not by much, and he proved to a lot of people that he can run a smart, energetic campaign," said Middle Tennessee State University professor Ken Blake, director of a statewide poll.

"He also got a lot of press … and despite all the negative ads — including the infamous ‘call me’ spot — he seems to have emerged from the campaign with no major damage to his public image. Those factors should help make him a favorite in the primary" if he runs.

Blake said the "main thing (Ford) has to do, in my view, is stay visible while avoiding screwing up in some spectacular way between now and his next run."

(Contact Richard Locker of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at www.commercialappeal.com.)