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Knoxville Mayor Haslam, an Early-Bird Candidate for Governor, Visits Memphis

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From one end of the state to another came Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam this week. Republican Haslam, who is one of the suddenly mushrooming number of declared gubernatorial candidates to come forward in the wake of former U.S. Senator Bill Frist's weekend statement of non-candidacy, arrived in Memphis Wednesday afternoon, wasting no time in widening his range of exposure.

A late switch in Haslam's Memphis venue somehow didn't get fully communicated to all members of the local media, but by the time the mayor, who traveled with a sizeable entourage, had rounded out his get-acquainted tour at the Little Tea Shop downtown, he had made enough of a first impression to suggest that he'll be a serious factor in what is going to be a hotly contested race.

Like all serious Republican campaigners these days, Haslam described himself as a "conservative," but his rhetoric, demeanor, buttoned-down appearance, and political resume all smacked of the kind of mainstream GOP candidate that once upon a time would have been called "moderate." He has been involved in several centrist Republican campaigns, beginning with the campaign of former governor and current U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander in 1978, when Haslam was a college student at Emory University in Atlanta, and continuing through the successful 2006 Senate campaign of Bob Corker.

And, like Memphis' only declared GOP candidate to date, District Attorney Bill Gibbons, the two-term Knoxville mayor has had some success in attracting crossover voters.

One fact uppermost in many another contender's mind - and one that was voiced by Gibbons in his own initial sit-down with the media this week - is the extent to which the independently wealthy Haslam, whose family owns the far-flung Pilot Oil enterprise, will be able to use his own resources and out-spend his opponents - a la Bill Frist in the Republican "six-pack" primary in 1994 and Bob Corker in 2006.

In that regard, Haslam is taking his cue from current Democratic governor Phil Bredesen, who, as a wealthy health-care entrepreneur, largely depended on his own fortune in a losing gubernatorial effort in 1994 but took pains to broaden his circle of financial supporters during his first successful run in 2002.

"Donors mean supporters," said Haslam, who is beginning a series of fund-raisers statewide, starting with one in Knoxville at the end of this month and continuing with another in Memphis next month.

Haslam's experience with the family business and his administrative service as mayor of Knoxville are credentials he'll put forward as a background for dealing with Tennessee's current funding crisis - one that Bredesen reckons currently has the state in a hole to the tune of almost $1 billion. Haslam says he also is concerned with the state's growing unemployment problem and with funding K-through-12 public education.

"It's going to take a 19-month campaign to get acquainted with the voters of Tennessee," said Haslam by way of accounting for his running start on the campaign trail. He knows that West Tennessee is an area where he is a virtual unknown but points out that he has local connections - notably his wife Chrissy, daughter of a local physician. The Haslams were married in Memphis, in fact - at Christ Methodist Church (coincidentally, the mayor later discovered, at the time, locally notorious, when an intruder was living with his female kidnap victim in the church's attic space).

Haslam knows he has competition from Gibbons locally and, for that matter, from several prospects, including already announced Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp, in his native East Tennessee. But the Knoxville mayor is already running, and running hard, and is clearly going to be a contender in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

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