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Democrat Phil Bredesen is running against his own party to win in pro-Trump Tennessee

It would be difficult to tell that Phil Bredesen is a Democrat by observing him and his cadre of supporters at the "World's Largest Fish Fry" here on Friday.

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Dan Merica (CNN)
PARIS, TN (CNN) — It would be difficult to tell that Phil Bredesen is a Democrat by observing him and his cadre of supporters at the "World's Largest Fish Fry" here on Friday.

Most of his Senate campaign signs don't advertise it, and it isn't part of his pitch to voters lined up on Old State Road 76. More than a few spectators at the parade honoring catfish turned to their family to ask if he is for or against President Donald Trump.

This is just how Bredesen, the former two-term governor of Tennessee and former mayor of Nashville, wants it.

"I don't want to come across as somebody who is the toy of the national Democratic Party," says Bredesen, the soft-spoken, cerebral 74-year old Senate candidate, as he walks the parade route.

Bredesen is the kind of politician that many have thought were on their way to extinction: A moderate Democrat in a red state whose political career has largely been defined by the Republican and independent support he has fostered for decades.

However, when a friend of his, Republican Sen. Bob Corker, announced his retirement last year, Bredesen saw an opening. He will now likely face Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a fiery arch-conservative member of Congress who proudly touts her hyper-partisan credentials.

Tennessee hasn't sent a Democrat to the US Senate in over 20 years, and the state has only trended more towards Republicans since Bredesen won his last statewide election in 2006. But in an election year shaping up to be good for Democrats nationwide, Bredesen's campaign is banking on his personal brand -- not the party's -- to win a state Trump won by 26 points in 2016.

Instead of direct attacks on the Republican Party or his opponent on Friday, Bredesen was more reflective, arguing that it's his party that needs to apologize for leaving voters like those lined up in Paris by focusing too much on issues like what should happen to Confederate monuments on public land or whether transgender students should be banned from using bathrooms conforming with their gender identity.

"What happens to Confederate monuments or what bathrooms people use, it doesn't show up on their radar screen," he says, pointing to the droves of Tennessee voters watching the parade floats drift by. "We (Democrats) are just playing to a piece of the base and ignoring stuff that is much more meaningful to a much broader group of people."

The former governor says he would reject any help from former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton -- "I don't need that," he says bluntly -- and lamented the fact that she called Trump supporters "deplorables" during a 2016 fundraising speech.

And while Blackburn is a proud soldier in Trump's fight to make America great again, Bredesen has tried to divorce the President from the race, running as solutions-oriented politician who is willing to work with anyone, a throwback to his time as governor where his ability to win over Republicans became lore in the state.

That feeling was cemented in 2006, the last time Bredesen ran for office, when he won every single county in the state on his way to a second term as governor.

Campaigning has changed since then -- Twitter, for example, wasn't the omnipresent political tool that it is now -- but Bredesen is ready to stake his campaign, and possibly Democratic control of the Senate, on winning over Tennesseans who voted for Trump with respect, understanding and a pledge to fight partisanship.

Trump-Bredesen voters

If Bredesen has a chance to win Tennessee, people like 59-year old Army veteran Ray Taylor hold the key.

Taylor has made his life in rural West Tennessee, raising four kids, 15 grandchildren and now 2 great grandchildren in Paris. He said he proudly voted for Bredesen in 2006 but decided to back Trump 10 years later.

He was wowed by the President's pledge to shake up Washington and still supports him wholeheartedly, but he wants Bredesen in the Senate.

"The people were ready for something different and I think Trump is doing the job he said he was going to do," Taylor said after he gave the former governor a thumbs-up along the parade route. "But I think we need people like Phil Bredesen in the Senate."

The key question in Bredesen's quest is how many Ray Taylors are out there -- voters who remember his time as governor fondly and are willing to overlook his party affiliation this time around.

Bredesen is not a frenetic campaigner. He spent much of the parade in the middle of the five-lane road, waving from side to side and occasionally doffing his yellow Nashville Predators hat to well-wishers. At times, Bredesen looked visibly concerned about holding up the parade to go work the attendees along the parade route and much of the personal interaction happened when people came to him.

But when speaking about the state of his party, he is more direct: Democrats need to apologize to voters like those in Paris.

"I guess I don't have as much apologizing to do for the national party as someone else might," Bredesen said. "(But) the reason we have Donald Trump as President is the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were just completely tone deaf to the concerns that people have had, a lot of people along this street."

Bredesen, when speaking about the Democratic Party, sometimes uses the term "they," a way to put verbal distance between himself and the party.

"I don't think they (Democrats) were particularly appreciative of the culture in a town like Paris and I think it has cost us heavily," he says. "I think what people are looking for is someone to respectful of their concerns, respectful of their way of life and certainly not call themselves deplorables. And that is what I am trying to do."

Bredesen's positions don't always comport with Democratic doctrine. He was critical of the Affordable Care Act and criticized Democrats for missing a chance to pass real healthcare reform by making the issue too partisan. He is also supportive of tax cuts, but calls the Republican bill passed last year "immoral" because of the way they were paid for and the fact that the individual tax cuts were not made permanent. And he -- as a sport shooter -- is against the idea of banning assault weapons but supports stronger background checks.

But Bredesen offers Democrats something unique: A chance to go on offense in a state the President won and possibly pick up a seat that has been in Republican control. Democrats face an uphill battle for Senate control, defending 10 seats in states Trump won in 2016.

Outside groups, including top Democratic super PACs, are already tracking the race and expect they will need to pour millions into the fight to bolster the money Blackburn is certain to have.

So even if he plans to run a campaign against Blackburn by faulting the Democratic Party, national Democrats were elated when the former governor jumped in the race. And though it's early and the polling is limited, Bredesen's popularity has backed up that excitement.

A Middle Tennessee State University poll released earlier this month had Bredesen up 10 points on Blackburn and Trump's approval rating at 50%, a dismal number considering Tennessee's political makeup. A recent Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy survey found Bredesen up 3% over Blackburn - 46 to 43.

Breaking through

Blackburn couldn't be more different than Bredesen.

Though she has lived in Tennessee for much of her life, she has represented the state in Washington since 2002, when she stepped into a seat vacated by Republican Ed Bryant.

Blackburn jumped into the Senate race earlier this year by calling for a "conservative revolution" on Capitol Hill, pledging to "fight every day to make our Republican majority act like one." Her announcement came hours after the Republican establishment favorite -- Gov. Bill Haslam -- said he wouldn't run. The longtime congressman is running alongside Trump, hoping to use the fact that he won the state by 26% in 2016 to her advantage.

"I'm a hardcore, card-carrying Tennessee conservative. I'm politically incorrect and proud of it," she says in her announcement video.

Blackburn's aides declined to make the her available for this story and she did not attend the Paris parade, but her spokeswoman, Abbi Sigler, previewed the looming general election fight by saying Bredesen would be a "solid vote for Chuck Schumer and Obama, Clinton-era liberal policies."

Rep. Diane Black, a Republican candidate for governor who has endorsed Blackburn, said Friday that the congressman has the advantage because gone are the days of "old fashion Democrats."

"I think that old southern Democrat now is a Republican," Black said. "(Tennessee voters) value the kind of things that Republicans really stand for: Families and faith and second amendment and religious rights."

But Blackburn's candidacy has ruffled establishment feathers in the state, including with Corker, who offered a markedly tepid endorsement earlier this month.

When asked by CNN to describe why Blackburn was better than Bredesen, the senator struggled, only offering that Tennessee "is a red state" and that she would "vote to elect the majority leader" if she won. Corker was arguably more laudatory of Bredesen, who he touted as "my friend" and someone he is "not going to campaign against."

Bredesen let out a sly smile when asked about Corker's comments.

"I think actually it is kind of a mark of how screwed up politics are in this country that you can't have two people who have got a long history with each other and like each other and worked together and one of them says something nice about the other one and it is national news because they are of different parties," he said. "I mean, that's ridiculous."

Or at least Bredesen wants people to think it's ridiculous.

He said he was more than aware that partisanship has become an identifier as defining as sports fandom since he last ran for office, making whether your decision as to Democrat or Republican as important as your choice between Tennessee or Ole Miss.

But he disagrees that it has to define a candidate.

"What voters are looking for, in most cases, is just someone who will be respectful of their concerns and isn't bought into this bicoastal view of what the Democratic Party is," Bredesen said. "And I think for Democrats to be successful, they are going to have to broaden their tent, they are going to have to be more respectful of the ways there are to live life in this country and then I think they will begin to do fine."

Too many, though, the letter next to his name on November's ballot still matters -- a lot.

Sue McGee, a 75-year old from Paris, leapt out of her seat when she saw Bredesen passing by.

"Phil Bredesen!" she hollered as she went in for a hug.

After returning to her family on the curb, though, the glowing grandmother smiled and asked, "He is a Republican, isn't he?"

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