It was tough for any self-respecting progressive to root wholeheartedlyfor Harold Ford Jr. In his longshot bid to replace retiring SenateMajority Stiff Bill Frist, Tennesee’s wunderkind Democratic congressmantook the tired old “Republican Lite” strategy and amped it up intosomething more akin to “Republican Squared.” War? Absolutely.Immigration? Inexcusable. Guns? Blast away! Gays? Keep yourdistance–from each other. Jesus? To Him be all glory.

My introduction to Ford’s unorthodox campaign strategy came last summer,when I landed in Nashville International Airport, climbed into my rentalDodge, clicked on the radio, and heard this blast: “Every day over 5,700miles of border stands unsecured…. Every day almost 2,000 people enterAmerica illegally. Every day hundreds of employers look the other way,handing out jobs that keep illegals coming…. And every day the rest ofus pay the price…. I’m Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. For too manyyears Democrat and Republican presidents alike have looked the otherway. Now 11 million people live here illegally…and while most comefor jobs, the odds are any terrorist with a map can also get inundetected.”

Ford couldn’t talk enough about “illegals.” Or quote enough from theHoly Bible. Or adjust his accent often enough as he raced across thestate, seemingly trying to personally wrestle every voter’s doubt intosubmission. Like Bill Clinton, you hate to like Ford–but you can’t helpit. With his twinkish good looks and winningly oily charm, he easilyout-campaigned and out-charmed his opponent, the supremely bland,moderately conservative Bob Corker.

In the end, Ford also out-Republicaned the Republican nominee. It wasquite a feat for a Democrat to do that, you had to admit. But you alsohad to wonder: What kind of victory would it be for Democrats to electsomeone who’s staked himself out in opposition to practically every coreprinciple of the party?

But there was another principle at stake in this race–thanks not somuch to Ford’s being black, but to the very worst instincts of theRepublican Party. Everybody knows about the blatant race-baiting of theinfamous “Harold, call me” Playboy ad. What’s received less attention isthe way Corker and the national GOP steadily led up to their dropping ofthat “final solution.” All campaign long, in ads and on their website, they whispered into Tennesseans’ ears that Ford embodied all theworst stereotypes of that creature called Black Democrat: shifty, horny(for sleazy white women especially), posturing and profiteering. ThePlayboy ad turned the race from a likely Ford win to a narrow Corkerelection–but not simply because of its own malignant impact. The skidshad long been greased. A certain set of white Tennessee men was ready totake the message to heart once it came hurtling at them so explicitly.

It’s easy to see Ford’s loss as a sign that the old racial mistrust –the old prejudices–remain shockingly strong in 2006 Tennessee. There’sno question that Ford was a far superior candidate, or that he hadtailored himself to snugly fit the conservative leanings of many of thestate’s available independent and Republican voters. There’s no questionthat race-baiting sunk him. But there is also this: In a supposedlysolid-red Southern state, an African-American Democrat from awell-known, ethically challenged (and liberal) political family nearlybeat a conservative Republican for a US Senate seat. A whole lot ofTennesseans voted for their first black person for a major office; awhole lot of others considered it for the first time. It will never benearly so hard for them to pull that trigger again. And Ford, given hisgleefully vaulting ambitions, will sure enough give them another chance.