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Member Travel Rankings Could Hurt Ford Bid

The revelation that Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) took more privately funded trips than any other current Member of Congress over the past five years may complicate his nascent Senate campaign, candidates and party strategists said Tuesday.

Ford took 61 trips funded by private organizations from 2000 through January 2005, according to calculations made by Political Money Line, a campaign finance Web site. Former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux (D), who retired from the Senate in 2004, also took 61 trips during that period.

Mark Schuermann, chief of staff to Ford, said in a statement released Tuesday that the Congressman “spends time on these trips speaking to Tennessee and national groups, learning about issues and legislation … and how policy shifts will affect his congressional district.”

Ford has represented the Memphis-based 9th district since 1996. Prior to that, Ford’s father held the seat for 22 years.

Sixteen of the 61 trips Ford took were within Tennessee, including 11 to the state capital of Nashville. Ford also traveled 11 times to Florida and four times to Atlanta.

Ford’s taste for domestic travel helped keep his costs down: Though he ranked first among Members in trips, he ranked 66th in overall travel costs during the five-year period.

Ford did travel to a few far-flung locales, however. Those include a March 2003 trip to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands for a speech to the Sparks Co., as well as a trip in May 2001 to Los Angeles to appear on the television show “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.”

While Ford sought to downplay the impact of his busy travel schedule, his opponent in the Democratic Senate primary said it would likely be an issue.

Kimberly Wood, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Rosalind Kurita (D), said that if Ford “becomes a candidate for the United State Senate, it is something we are going to talk about.”

Wood would not expound on how Ford’s travel would play in the race, but she did note that the story on the travel figures in Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper Tuesday featured side-by-side pictures of Ford and embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

“If my candidate appeared next to Tom DeLay I would be having a meltdown,” Woods added. “It implies something unethical is going on.”

Though Ford remains a comfortable favorite in the primary, other Democrats are concerned that the travel revelations could complicate the party’s efforts to reclaim the seat being vacated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) in 2006.

While Ford is a serious contender for the seat, any Democrat running statewide these days in Tennessee faces an uphill battle, leaving little margin for error.

One Democratic strategist familiar with the state’s politics argued that if Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker wins the GOP nomination, he could batter Ford with the trip issue.

“Corker could go to town on this one,” said the source. “This would be dynamite.”

While the travel issue could also be helpful to former Reps. Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant, both of whom are also seeking the Republican nomination, it would not likely be as potent, since each man served with DeLay in the House, the source added.

Bryant was reluctant to say whether Ford’s trips would be a major issue in a potential general election matchup.

“We are going to talk about the differences primarily in political philosophy and experience,” Bryant said. “It’s hard for me to say today what the issues will be in a general election which for me won’t start until August 2006.”

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