By the luck of the draw, one assumes, Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam got to open up Tuesday night’s forum for Republican gubernatorial candidates on WKNO-TV and other public television stations statewide. (The forum was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters.)
And at evening’s end Mike McWherter, the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee-in-waiting, conveyed his sense of how things stood among the GOP hopefuls with a press release dissing the forum performances of “Bill Haslam and the candidates running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.”
Add to that the fact that Haslam’s opening monologue was smooth and convincing — better by far than his uneasy recent talking-head campaign commercial (is it the third or fourth that the well-heeled Haslam has run thus far?)
In other words, Haslam did nothing — and had nothing done to him — that would disturb his long-presumed position as frontrunner in the Republican pack (and among gubernatorial candi9dates at large, for that matter).
Haslam’s task at this point of the nomination contest is to suggest to Republican primary voters that he is adequately conservative while intimating to voters at large that he is nondescript or “moderate” enough to deserve their votes in the general election. By and large, the Pilot Oil scion (whose formidable fundraising receipts have kept his personal wealth moot to this point) was able to do that Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp had a somewhat more difficult task — to compete with Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey for the affection of the Republican right wing while expanding his credibility with middle-of-the-road voters.
Wamp, too, largely succeeded — though, from a cosmetic point of view, his over-wide grins at the close of his answers took some of the edge off his impressive natural intensity. But the congressman held to his guns when questioner Otis Sanford of The Commercial Appeal suggested that Wamp might be backing off somewhat from his just-signed pledge to render unto the Med the same amount of federal funding received by the state as the Memphis hospital generates from uncompensated patient care.
And Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville, relatively unyielding in his public posture against state spending federal interference in state matters, kept his street cred with hardline conservatives and was the only major candidate Tuesday night willing to consider cutting funds for Pre-K education.
But even he was able to play off the extreme right-wing views evinced by Nashville businessman Joe Kirkpatrick, previously an Unknown Quantity, whose platform seemed to be equal parts devotion to “the God of Israel” and abhorrence of any federal role in Tennessee whatsoever.
Tea Partier Kirkpatrick’s description of liberalism as “a mental disorder,” his proposed solution to illegal aliens in Tennessee (“Buy ‘em a ticket to West Memphis, Arkansas, and send ‘em home”), his desire to abolish gun-carry restrictions altogether, his repudiation of climate change, and his general flamboyance all provided some entertainment and a parameter of sorts to the discussion.
All the candidates were for biting the bullet on reducing the number of state employees, though their criteria ranged from Wamp’s proposal for across-the-board cuts to Ramsey’s for reductions that were simultaneously more rigorous (“cut by a third”) and more selective (he opposed across-the-board cuts). None of the candidates were for eliminating coal as an energy source, though Haslam touted solar power and Wamp promoted nuclear power as alternatives.
Given that the forum was held in Memphis, there was precious little local reference from the panel, drawn from journalists across the state, until Sanford broached the subject of the Med. Ramsey thought the solution to the hospital’s dilemma lay in pressuring Arkansas and Mississippi to pony up more support while Haslam focused on the institution’s need for a long-term business plan.
Asked afterward why he had chosen not to join Wamp in signing the dollar-for-dollar pledge desired by the Shelby County Commission, Haslam cited objections from state TennCare officials that the procedure would reduce the state’s overall TennCare pool and thus its potential for acquiring federal matching funds.
Even if that dilemma could be avoided by the simple expedient of delaying distribution of uncompensated-care monies until all matching funds were in place, Haslam cast doubt on the accuracy of existing formulas for gauging levels of uncompensated care.
More to Come