This past week saw the first major gathering involving all major aspirants for the Republican nomination for Congress in the 7th District, and the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and idiosyncrasies were on abundant display.

The forum, which took place Tuesday night at Pickering Community Center at Germantown, featured Marsha Blackburn of Williamson County,Forrest Shoaf of Davidson County; and Sonny Carlota, Brent Taylor, David Kustoff, and Mark Norris, all of Shelby County.

All except Carlota, a mild-mannered Philippine-born physician and frequent candidate in Lakeland elections, can be said to have serious designs on the seat, which is being vacated by incumbent Ed Bryant, now seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate.

Shoaf may be regarded as a bit more of a long shot than the others, each of whom has some degree of established name ID, but the diminutive Nashville barrister and military veteran is playing catchup with a series of radio ads which promise, among other things, that he’ll go to court to try to block any income-tax legislation passed by the General Assembly.

State Senator Blackburn’s appearance in Shelby County was by no means an unusual event; she’s spending what aides describe as “a couple of days” in the Memphis area every week, knowing that, while the 7th sprawls all the way from the eastern edge of Memphis into the periphery of Nashville, Big Shelby can account for as much as 40 percent of the total Republican vote.

Her statewide fame as an arch-foe of higher taxation and big government is not quire as well established in the Memphis area as elsewhere, but she’s doing her best to update Shelby Countians, preaching the gospel of across-the-board spending cuts, selective deregulation, cracking down on driver’s licenses for aliens, and, most of all, diehard opposition to a state income tax.

She has her work cut out for her in Shelby inasmuch as it is home for Kustoff, who ran the crucially successful Bush campaign in Tennessee in 2000; Taylor, a Memphis city councilman who has assiduously worked the district’s hinterland; and Norris, her state Senate colleague who represents the county and parts of two adjoining ones.

All the candidates professed themselves opposed to what some (funeral director Taylor, especially) call the “death” tax and some refer to as the “inheritance” tax; all professed alarm about government spending and the threat of more taxes, and all toed the line as opponents of abortion. Needless to say, they all favored job development, too.

The differences were mainly those of style: Each of the male candidates delivered his remarks while standing behind the table at which they all had seats. Blackburn opted, Liddy Dole-style, to walk back and forth between the table and the overflow audience.

Kustoff, riding a wave of brand-new and well-received TV commercials, emphasized his key role in winning Tennessee for the Bush ticket; Norris played up his service as a county commissioner and legislator; and Taylor, in general, sounded a populist note on behalf of the hinterlands he has cultivated (sometimes by donating leftover council-reelection money to local parties in the district).

All was not mere boilerplate and politics as usual, however. An encounter between Taylor and Norris, one which could reverberate quite late into the primary campaign, drew most attention.

Norris, an inventive politician who has mastered the art of holding his ideological ground while making personal connections across various lines, had readied a gimmick for the evening.

In part designed to establish contact with the audience, in part designed to counter what he would later term “a whispering campaign,” it began with the affable state senator’s toting up to the front of the room several paper bags. Norris, best known as a lawyer, announced (with a slight but meaningful glance in Taylor’s direction) that he wanted to set to rest a “rumor going around” expressing doubts about the legitimacy of his simultaneous identity as a farmer.

Reaching into one sack and pulling out a half-carton of eggs, bearing his name and campaign logo, Norris said he wanted to give away egg cartons, as long as they held out, to each person present, “and I can guarantee you,” he said, they were all laid on his Collierville farm and personally harvested by himself.

As the crowd murmured in appreciation of the ploy, Taylor suddenly interjected, “You know, when he put his hand in that sack, I didn’t know whether he was going to come back with something from the back end of a chicken or from the back end of a horse.” To which Norris shot back, “You probably wouldn’t know the difference.”

The show of combat between Norris and Taylor indicates not only differences in style, of course, but also the degree to which they, along with the more above-the-battle-styled Kustoff, will be competing intensely for the common Shelby County base as well as the vote in immediately outlying rural areas.

Each of the three can demonstrate mathematically that, even with the most even split between them, Blackburn’s Williamson County vote would not be enough for her to win. What each of them may not realize as fully as do observers at the Nashville end of the district is that Blackburn -- who must, of course, cope with Shoaf’s competition on her home ground -- may not be so easily confined to her base constituency.

To judge from this first encounter, the battle for the 7th in Republican ranks can be expected to be intense, colorful, and perhaps even bruising.

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