Two Republican candidates got the V.I.P. treatment in Memphis this week —guest appearances in support of their campaigns from U.S. Senators. In the case of GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam, that was Tennessee’s senior senator, Lamar Alexander; in the case of 9th District congressional candidate Charlotte Bergmann, it was Alexander’s Senate colleague Bob Corker.
The import of the two visits was different. Alexander, who did a ride-along on Haslam’s bus on Tuesday, making stops with the Knoxville mayor in Collierville and Memphis, was a coals-to-Newcastle case —meaning that any new help Haslam gets at this point is somewhat superfluous. He is widely presumed to have his race against Democratic nominee Mike McWherter of Jackson in the bag.
Things are different with Bergmann, a long-odds underdog in her race against Democratic incumbent congressman Steve Cohen. Corker’s lunch time appearance at her headquarters on Yates Rd. on Wednesday was a genuine serendipity — further evidence, along with new TV ads and proliferating yard signs, that Bergmann’s once largely invisible candidacy had taken on a new seriousness.
Besides Alexander, Haslam was accompanied on his Early Voting Bus Tour in Shelby County by his father, Pilot Corporation founder Jimmy Haslam, the mayor's wife Crissy, and Tom Ingram, Haslam's campaign manager and a longtime political guru for Alexander as well.
The local leg of the ongoing Haslam tour concluded at the headquarters of Junior Achievement downtown, where the candidate and his party were escorted through the premises by JA president Larry Colbert — stopping at one point at a “City Hall” booth, where youthful Jordyn Johnson, a student at St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls, was serving as “mayor” for the day.
“Do people give you trouble when you have to raise taxes?” Haslam jested. Jordyn looked confused, and Haslam, mock-commiserating, said, “Yeah, I’ve got that problem, too.”
On a more serious note, the candidate responded to a question about last week’s imbroglio concerning his apparent concession to gun activists that he would sign a bill eliminating the need for gun permits in Tennessee.
"I should have been more definite about saying I preferred the law the way it is,” Haslam said.
A would-be tipster in local Republican ranks was trying to vend a story last week to the effect that Alexander, a two-time candidate for president, intended to leave the Senate early to make another bid for the nation’s top job in 2012.
The story assumes, of course, that Haslam will be elected governor next Tuesday and would use his appointive power to name as Alexander’s replacement former 7th District congressman Ed Bryant, who lost a bid for what was then an open seat to the current senator in the 2002 Republican primary.
But Alexander debunked the story in Memphis during the Junior Achievement stop.
“Nothing to it,” said the Senator who offered himself as a presidential candidate for the 1996 and 2000 cycles but now disclaims any further presidential ambitions. “My colleagues in the Senate just reelected me [as Republican caucus chairman], and I intend to keep serving in that role and going back and forth between Washington and Maryville and other points in Tennessee.”
Corker’s visit to Bergmann’s East Memphis headquarters on Wednesday was sandwiched in between another Memphis stop and an evening visit to Henning for an appearance with Haslam, 8th District GOP nominee Stephen Fincher and other Republican notables.
The senator made sure to offer a tribute to Bergmann, whose rhetoric runs to Tea Party concepts, and praised her for “running on principle,” saying further, “The platform she is running on is the platform that has energized and, in many ways, transformed America.” And, in a Q and A with reporters afterward, he said that he made an endorsement on Bergmann’s website “a long time ago.”
But Corker’s emphasis, both in body language and verbally, was more generalized than is generally the case with such encounters. When he entered the HQ, Corker initially bypassed the candidate herself and spent some time making the rounds of the room, which was crowded with Bergmann supporters.
At length, he came to the front of the room, offered Bergmann a hearty embrace, and began his remarks this way: “I just came by to thank all of you for what you do. This is what makes America great.” In the Q and A afterward, he explained his purpose similarly: “I’m here because there are a lot of people who have thrown their lives behind a candidate who has a vision they want to embrace.” And he disclaimed knowing enough about the circumstances of the 9th District race to judge Bergmann’s chances.
In his remarks to the crowd, Corker, a dedicated foe of the TARP bailout first proposed by former President George W. Bush and an opponent also of President Obama’s bailout of distressed domestic automobile manufacturers, seconded Bergmann’s statement of congratulations to Ford Motor Company for forgoing participation in the government loan program and still turning a $1.7 billion profit in the last fiscal quarter.
Corker concentrated on what he saw as the growing menace of government debt. “Washington’s been irresponsible for at least a decade,” Corker said — his math implicitly lumping together eight Bush years and two Obama years. He said the national debt was about to rise in value to 143 percent of the nation’s Gross National Product and pronounced that prospect untenable.
“People like you have said, ‘’Look. I’m sorry. This cannot go on. We’re going to lose our economic sovereignty.’”
After Corker left the headquarters, Bergmann had her own Q and A with reporters. To a reporter’s comment that she seemed to have moved from “the fringe” to “the mainstream,” she responded,” We have been mainstream for quite some time. It’s just that the media is just now finding out.”