When Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor addressed the Southeast Shelby County Republican Club Monday night, he made a point of being lavishly complimentary and courteous to Chris Norris, the wife of state senator Mark Norris, one of his opponents in the hotly contested Republican primary for the 7th District congressional seat. And Norris, substituting for her husband at the event, returned the compliments. It was not ever thus. Only a week earlier the two had appeared, along with other 7th District GOP candidates, at the monthly luncheon of the Shelby County Republican Women, and, at that prior event, Chris Norris had been speaking her husband’s name as well -- but none too flatteringly of Taylor. Though she did not identify the councilman by name, she referred with obvious intensity to a candidate who had been circulating “lies” about Sen. Norris during the current campaign. That, as everyone knew, had to refer to Taylor -- who, as reported in the Flyer last week, had circulated a mailout making some highly tendentious and somewhat questionable comparisons between his own anti-tax voting record as a councilman and Norris’ as a county commissioner and state senator. As recently as Monday morning, Sen. Norris himself was referring to Taylor’s “lies” on Teddy Bart’s Roundtable, a Nashville-area radio broadcast, and calling his opponent a “character.” The different tone struck by Taylor and Chris Norris Monday night was befitting a new turn in the campaign, which could make moot Taylor’s calculated P.R. assault on Norris, one of two major rivals for the Shelby County component of the 7th District vote. As reported in The Nashville Tennessean and elsewhere Monday, a new poll by the respected Mason-Dixon organization showed the leader of the Republican field to be state Senator Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, a posh Nashville suburb, with 25 percent of the vote. In second place, with 17 percent, was Memphis lawyer David Kustoff, who ran -- and pulled off a win for -- George W. Bush‘s campaign in Tennessee two years ago. Taylor was in third place with 14 percent, with Norris following at 11 percent, and several others, including lawyer Forrest Shoaf of Nashville, who has spent much on media of late and impressed many, bringing up the rear with single-digit totals. Only the Shelby Countians in the race, each of whom has been at pains to demonstrate mathematically that Blackburn cannot win (in the same way, presumably, that a bumblebee cannot fly), should have been surprised by the Williamson County arch-conservative senator’s showing. But Kustoff’s second-place percentage was an eye-opener to everyone, and a shot in the arm to the Memphian’s campaign. Said campaign manager Stephanie Shackleford in a series of press releases Monday: "The results show this race is between David Kustoff and Marsha Blackburn to win the Republican nomination. The Mason-Dixon poll matches our own survey information and confirms that David's support in Shelby and West Tennessee is strong and growing…[S]upport for his campaign [is]growing while the other candidates have remained flat.” I n a press release of its own, Taylor’s campaign immediately disputed the Mason-Dixon poll’s accuracy. Said Taylor’s campaign manager, Lane Provine: "The Mason-Dixon poll does not match the results found in the Taylor campaign’s recent poll of Republican voters in the Seventh District… [which] shows Brent Taylor and Marsha Blackburn in a statistical dead heat for the lead. In Shelby County, the poll shows Taylor and David Kustoff in a dead heat. In the 13 counties outside of Shelby and Williamson, Taylor’s poll shows a 10-point lead for him over his nearest competitor, Blackburn.” Chimed in Taylor’s pollster himself, the well-regarded Steve Etheridge: "Since at least as far back as 1986, when the Mason-Dixon poll showed Winfield Dunn leading Ned McWherter by 5 points one week before McWherter won the election by 8, national political consultants have generally had no interest whatsoever in the Mason-Dixon poll as an instrument of knowing anything about what’s really going on in a campaign." Whatever the facts are, both Kustoff and Taylor were revealed to be stronger players that some observers had imagined, while Norris, who began the race as many people’s odd-son pick, seemed to be straggling. All that could change, since the number of undecided remained high and much campaign money remained unspent -- particularly by Norris, who had not yet committed some $200,000 in newly raised funds. Meanwhile, the results were enough to prompt Taylor to suggest Monday night that his future mailouts and press releases may focus less on Norris, his presumed main local opponent, and aim in other directions.

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