NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Forget the syrupy, feel-good message so common to Lamar Alexander's past political campaigns. This time, the Tennessee Republican is going into attack mode.
With early voting in the U.S. Senate race set to kick off next week, the two-term incumbent has unleashed two television ads hammering his previously little-known Democratic opponent, Gordon Ball, as a proxy for President Barack Obama and as a "slick-talking personal injury lawyer."
It's a far cry from past general elections that featured ads heavy on imagery of Alexander's past triumphs as governor — or even from the recently-concluded Republican primary in which he declined to even mention his opponent by name.
"The primary and the general are very different animals," Alexander campaign consultant Tom Ingram said. "The general is a time to define differences and choices and make sure voters understand what those are."
While Alexander won the August primary against state Rep. Joe Carr, it was by just 9 percentage points — a far smaller margin than his campaign and most political observers had expected. He also failed to carry his home county of Blount.
Alexander in the primary race stressed his effectiveness in the Senate through his willingness to work across the political aisle, but Carr attacked the senator as too close to Obama and for his positions on issues like immigration and Common Core education standards. Carr has also refused to endorse Alexander in the general.
Since the start of the general election campaign, Alexander has wasted little time in repeatedly seeking to brand Ball as "one more vote for Barack Obama's agenda." His first ad featured a stern Alexander speaking directly to the camera.
"Obamacare is a failure, border security is a mess, terrorists run rampant and America's drowning in debt," Alexander says. "If that's OK with you, then vote for my opponent."
Compare that with ads Alexander ran during his race against his 2008 opponent, former state Democratic Party Chairman Bob Tuke, that including sweeping views of Tennessee vistas and footage of Alexander as a young governor and meeting with everyday Tennesseans.
"Lamar doesn't really care whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, doesn't play gotcha," says narrator Steve Cropper, the acclaimed Memphis guitarist. "He looks you in the eye, listens more than he talks, just tries to do good each day."
"As Tennessee's senior statesman and senator, he finds the good in friends and foes alike."
Alexander in personal appearances has also been happy to pour on the criticism of Ball for a campaign website that lifted much of the candidate's positions from other Democratic senators.
"I've never had an opponent in a campaign who had no positions of his own. He's a confessed plagiarist," Alexander said after a recent fundraiser. "If he were elected Senator he wouldn't even have to go to Washington, he could just let (Senate Democratic leader) Harry Reid vote twice."
Ball has blamed the lifted material on a former campaign volunteer. And his campaign is quick to point out that has never even met the president.
"It is absurd that Lamar Alexander would attack Gordon Ball when it is Lamar Alexander that has voted with Barack Obama more than 62 percent of the time," campaign manager Matt Kuhn said.
Ingram, the campaign consultant, insists there's nothing to be read in to Alexander's aggressive tone this cycle.
"It was a different time then, and you have to design your messages to the times," Ingram said. "These are times when we're worried about disease and terrorists and the economy and the misfunction of government. And you don't take that lightly."
As for what remains from Alexander as voters begin casting ballots Wednesday through the Nov. 4 election, Ingram said the goal is to make a "a presentation of Lamar which hopefully will reflect someone they know and trust and believe will make a positive difference."
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