The inescapable smell of corn on the cob and freshly smoked barbecue sweetened the mid-October air as U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander took the stage beneath a tent in a city park.

The country is in trouble, the two-term senator warned the Republican crowd, yet the Democrat who wants to replace him in the Senate is a slick-talking trial lawyer who, if elected, would be one more vote for the agenda of President Barack Obama.

“Let’s send a message to Washington — we don’t want one more vote for Obama to take the country down the wrong direction it’s heading today,” Alexander concluded, drawing cheers and a standing ovation at the GOP get-out-the-vote rally last week.

A few hours earlier, halfway across the state, Democrat Gordon Ball hardly looked the part of the slick-talking trial lawyer as he shopped for votes in less-than-animated fashion.

“I’m Gordon Ball, and I’m running for U.S. Senate against Lamar Alexander,” the white-haired Ball, dressed casually in jeans and a navy blazer, announced as he strolled into the game room at St. Clair Senior Center in Murfreesboro, where a dozen elderly men and women were absorbed in card games.

“What are you going to do for seniors?” one man asked, without even looking up from his hand.

“Everything I can,” Ball replied.

A few minutes later, the center’s executive director approached Ball in the hallway, politely informed him that politicking isn’t allowed at the facility and said he’d have to leave. “I can’t say I’ve been turned out of a better place,” Ball said, injecting a bit of levity into the awkward situation.

With the Nov. 4 election just two weeks away, Alexander and Ball are making their final sales pitches to voters in a race that most political watchers believe really isn’t a race at all.

Alexander, 74, a former governor, is the heavy favorite to win a third six-year term in the Senate. But after surviving a closer-than-expected primary challenge in August from state Rep. Joe Carr, who had backing from tea-party groups, Alexander is taking no chances in his race against Ball, who has never held public office.

In hard-hitting campaign ads and at campaign events, Alexander has been pummeling Ball, arguing he’s trying to deceive voters into believing he’s a moderate Democrat when in fact he’s a liberal who represents “one more cut-and-paste vote” for Obama and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who Republicans loathe almost as much as the president.

“If (Ball) were elected, he wouldn’t even have to go to Washington,” Alexander said. “He could just let Harry Reid vote twice.”

Alexander’s hard edge is a striking contrast from the primary, when his campaign ads focused heavily on issues and his own personal background without ever mentioning his opponent by name.

“A primary is a family discussion — a discussion in a great big, rambunctious family,” Alexander said. “I didn’t run one single negative radio or television ad because I knew that if I won, I’d need all of those votes in the general election. The general election is completely different. Here we have a huge choice.”

Ball said he has been surprised by the aggression.

“I never thought they would attack me — I thought Lamar and his advisers would just ignore me,” Ball said, seated on a sofa in his room at the Omni Nashville Hotel.

Ball, who grew up in Cocke County and now lives in Knoxville, knows he’s the underdog in the race. But Alexander lost 29 counties in the primary, including Blount County, his home. To win, Ball figures, he needs to run even with Alexander in East Tennessee, carry Davidson and Shelby counties and run strong in the rest of West Tennessee.

Despite Alexander’s efforts to paint him as a liberal, Ball, 65, insists he’s “a bit of hybrid” — left-leaning on some issues, conservative on others. He opposes the Common Core education standards, wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, promises to fight amnesty for undocumented immigrants and insists he won’t be afraid to stand up to his party leaders when he thinks they’re wrong.

As for Alexander’s attempts to link him to Obama, Ball said he voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary, but supported Obama in the 2008 and 2012 general elections. Still, he said, he would have approached the presidency different than Obama has.

“I think he’s great on TV,” Ball said of the commander-in-chief, “but I don’t think he has the ability to sit down with people on the other side and get things done.”

As the campaign enters its final stretch, Ball said he will continue traveling across the state, stopping anywhere he can to make the case that Alexander has been in Washington too long and that Tennessee should be represented by new blood more in touch with voters.

“I wish you luck,” attorney Ken Burger told Ball last week after Ball made an impromptu stop at Burger’s law office in downtown Murfreesboro. Noting that Ball was campaigning in solid Republican territory, Burger added, “I don’t know if you’re naïve or courageous. I hope you’re courageous.”

Back in East Tennessee, Alexander took his campaign to Wright’s Cafeteria, a Knoxville restaurant known for its down-home menu and as a favorite gathering spot for everybody who’s anybody in politics. Between bites of fried okra, creamed corn and chocolate meringue pie, Alexander shook hands with well-wishers, posed for photos and chatted with other diners about the state of his race.

Alexander said he feels good about the prospects for his own re-election and about the GOP’s chances of winning a Senate majority for the first time in eight years.

“I think most Tennesseans believe our country is headed in the wrong direction,” he said, “and a vote for me could produce a Republican majority to begin to move our country in a new, more conservative direction.”