As the penultimate -- and perhaps most meaningful --election day of 2002, neared, two statewide candidates who have received shorter shrift of late than the lofty office they seek would justify came to Memphis for final pitches.
And both Van Hilleary and Jim Henry, the major Republican candidates for governor on Fridays statewide primary ballot, were dissembling just a little. Hilleary, in proposing a debate invitation to putative Democratic nominee Phil Bredesen, was trying to convince people he was not in a primary contest. Jim Henry, in vowing to overcome against Hilleary, was trying to convince people he was in one.
Henry had fresh polls -- one from a Knoxville TV station that actually showed him with a lead and another, from workhorse local pollster Steve Ethridge, showing him only 10 points behind Hilleary, with half the electorate still undecided. The TV poll, which processed electronic tallies of respondents at large, was one of those best described by the euphemism unscientific, and, while Ethridges poll gave the genial ex-state legislator from Kingston a shot, ten points is still ten points.
Not that, win or lose, Henry wont have something to show for his year-long effort to catch up with the front-running Hilleary. As Memphis businessman Bob Schroeder bustled about him at his East Memphis headquarters, planning precinct-by-precinct efforts for this last week of electioneering, Henry took a break from a round of telephone calls. Ive had a heck of a time, he said.
Noting that virtually every major state newspaper has endorsed his candidacy, Henry smiled and said wanly, If nothing else, I can make a collage out of all those nice editorials.
By his own choice, Henry is socked in for the duration. Not until late Wednesday, when he returns to his East Tennessee home to wait for returns, will he leave Shelby County, which he sees as key to the outcome and to hopes which have to be rated as of the upset variety
Hilleary was on hand earlier Monday afternoon for a press coverage at which, by way of responding to a debate proposal floated by Bredesen, he suggested his own -- for ten flatbed truck debates across the breadth of Tennesse. Oh, and he suggested a third debater, fringe candidate Edwin Barefoot Sanders, an independent.
To say the least, the gesture seemed designed to diss Henry, whom Hilleary has otherwise attended to with increasingly acerbic remarks. In his television commercials Henry is treated as some sort of appendage of Governor Don Sundquist, the lame-duck Republican incumbent.
Sundquists standing among fellow Republicans statewide can best be gauged by the fact that, when the governor last week admitted to reporters in Nashville his preferences for Henry over Hilleary and Senatorial candidate Lamar Alexander over 7th District congressman Ed Bryant, it was Hilleary and Bryant who trumpeted the fact, not the two endorsees. A Hilleary press release, in fact, greeted the news with the classic headline, SUNDQUIST SEEKS THIRD TERM.
It is no secret, of course, that Sundquists presumed low repute among Republicans stems from the governors openness to fundamental revisions of the states tax structure -- a position that had him, ultimately, leading a futile three-year crusade on behalf of a state income tax.
Opposition to the income tax -- or IT, as it is sometimes referred to in editorial shorthand -- has been the major plank of late in Hillearys gubernatorial campaign, in general, and in his TV commercials, in particular.
Jim Henry is well aware of what public-opinion polls show about Sundquists approval rating -- hovering now in the high 20s or low 30s, percentage wise -- and, while he has made it clear that he will be open to any means of revenue enhancement, he suggests a constitutional convention as the only viable way of reaching a solution, and his own TV commercials make the case that he, too, has opposed the income tax in the past.
The issue was not intended to figure in the forefront of Jim Henrys Shelby County campaign blitz, you may be sure.