By PAUL C. BARTON, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON-- To those who watch Tennessee politics, the contrast couldn't be starker.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker won his seat in 2006 by enduring a bruising primary fight against two former GOP congressmen, Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, and then running against a well-funded Harold Ford Jr., who was then the Democratic representative from Memphis.
Six years later, in his first re-election campaign, Corker, armed with at least $6 million in the bank, faces 36-year-old Mark Clayton of Whites Creek, someone who hasn't raised enough money to trigger Federal Election Commission reporting requirements.
And while Clayton claims to be a Democrat, the Tennessee Democratic Party doesn't claim him.
Party officials cite his views on gays, which they regard as extremist, as well as his association with Public Advocate of the United States, a right wing organization on social issues that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group.
Nevertheless, Clayton won the Democratic Primary on Aug. 2 and will be the only one with a 'D' by his name on the Nov. 6 ballot.
As a result, the Cook Political Report, a Washington election handicapping service, calls the Tennessee race "a cakewalk" for the incumbent. And The New York Times' election forecasting unit - fivethirtyeight.com â€" gives him a 96 percent chance of gaining a second term.
"Obviously, we feel we are in a very different place than we were six years ago," Corker said during an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
But other than that, Corker declines to say much about his campaign plans other than he will continue to stress "my Senate service."
His campaign staff says the final month will have the feel of an August work period, the time where members traditionally leave Washington so that they can travel their states or districts and meet extensively with constituents.
While there may be a rally or two, Corker mainly wants to travel "every corner of the state" and talk about solving the nation's fiscal crisis and reviving its economy, said campaign manager Todd Womack.
Corker's Senate record is one of the reasons he finds himself in such a politically enviable position, says Jennifer Duffy, analyst with the Cook Political Report.
"He hasn't been a back-bencher," she said. "He has taken care of business."
Corker, who got a seat on the Senate Banking Committee in 2008, took a lead role for Republicans in trying to negotiate financial industry reforms with majority Democrats. Ultimately, though, Democrats went their own way in passing the Dodd-Frank package in 2010.
Corker has also tried to work with Democrats in searching for ways to trim federal spending and separated himself from most Republicans in supporting a new strategic arms treaty with the Russians.
But he has been a reliable conservative on most issues, especially in opposition to President Barack Obama's health care reform and economic stimulus, and has a lifetime score of 85 percent from the American Conservative Union.
While the state Democratic Party may not be actively supporting Clayton, it doesn't shy away from criticizing Corker.
"Bob Corker has failed Tennesseans over and over again," said Brandon Puttbrese, communications director for the party.
As to why Corker isn't facing stronger opposition, the spokesman said the incumbent's early fundraising may have been an "intimidation" to some.
Corker had raised $10.7 million by the end of 2011 and came into this year with $7.3 million in cash on hand.
"Most Tennesseans are not going to see that much money in their lifetimes," Puttbrese said.
Nevertheless, Clayton, in a telephone interview, said he is running a "low-budget, high-impact" grass-roots campaign that will depend heavily on face-to-face meetings with voters and the power of the Internet.
Clayton, a 2002 graduate of Pensacola Christian College, said he is frustrated with constantly having to field questions from the media about the state party not supporting him. "You would think there are other issues to talk about," he said.
But about gay rights, he said, "A person who is gay has the same rights as anybody else, except we do not recognize (the right) of gay marriage. We don't want a societal transformation."
On abortion, he said he respected the right of a doctor to recommend an abortion if the mother's life were in danger but disagreed with abortions in cases of rape. A rape is a "traumatic situation," he said, and should not be followed with another one.
"I think that's the right decision," he said of women having babies after a rape.
He said he is also opposed to gays in the military and that the armed services should ask recruits at their induction if they are homosexual, a practice not followed since Bill Clinton became president in 1993.
On other issues, Clayton said a major concern of his is stopping legislation that enhances the government's powers to maintain surveillance of its citizens.
On financial issues, he said he would have opposed the bailout of major banks that Corker voted for in 2008, as well as Obama's 2010 health care reform package, which Corker opposed as well.
He said he supports "medical reforms" to drive down costs, but that the Obama package was too expensive.
As for the 2009 stimulus, Corker said he might have supported a stimulus package but would have wanted changes in the nation's monetary and fiscal policies first.
Asked about the budget plan offered by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP vice presidential nominee, Clayton said: "It doesn't have enough cuts in it. Nobody's plan coming out of Washington has enough cuts."