Gubernatorial candidates have been eager recently to get on with debates, rather than forums. But as another major forum is scheduled Monday night at Lipscomb University, the tone may be somewhat subdued in the wake of the recent flooding in Middle and West Tennessee.
The scheduled forum, hosted by the Nashville Junior Chamber of Commerce, is expected to stick to the familiar format of candidates answering questions one at a time, although it’s likely candidates at some point will feel a need to express their feelings about the impact the recent floods have had.
The Junior Chamber has touted the expected participation of the three major Republican candidates — Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — as well as Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, the lone Democrat remaining in the campaign. Questions are expected to focus on subjects such as economic expansion and education. Another forum is scheduled earlier in the day Monday in Nashville by the Associated Builders and Contractors.
The race has been going forward where it could in the state. Haslam, for example, held a big event in Memphis with former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker on Thursday. But candidates have also been expressing their concerns about victims of the disaster, including links on campaign Web sites for where to find help. Ramsey established a drop-off site in Bristol for flood relief for the other parts of the state. Much of the state was spared the flooding.
Forums for the candidates thus far have amounted to candidates being given time to make opening and closing statements and answer questions, one at a time, in a structured format. But the desire for more interaction could be sensed among the candidates after a recent forum at Middle Tennessee State University.
Candidates have been appreciative of the opportunity to give their pitches, but thus far in the race to succeed Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is term-limited, there has been little room for real debate.
The basic forum does still serve as a valuable format for voters, many of whom are just now becoming familiar with the candidates. But it’s not surprising that the candidates themselves, who have been doing such events since last year, are ready for more.
“I’m ready for the television cameras to come on statewide and us to have as many open, free-flowing debates, so we can talk issues,” said Wamp after the MTSU forum.
“There’s been so much canned, staged, scripted, coached language. We’ve been together over a hundred times, and we’ve yet to really get into ‘wait-a-second-that’s-not-true.'”
Wamp is not alone.
“As soon as we can get there, I’m ready for it,” Ramsey said. “I am, because I do think I have the knowledge and experience on the issues to be able to debate them.”
Ramsey said he has already found moments when he thought he had the upper hand because he believed he had a better command of the facts.
The recent forum in Murfreesboro was even more constraining than most since much of the program involved asking a specific question of a specific candidate and not of the others.
“In a situation like this where there are a lot of questions you want to answer more of them,” Haslam said. “There’s a lot of those where you think, ‘I want to answer that one, too.'”
When asked that night if he’s ready for a debate format, Haslam was quick to respond.
“You bet,” he said. “I would love that. The problem with this format is somebody can make a comment, and if you’ve gone before them, you don’t get a chance to talk for about six things later, and by then it’s a long way away. I would prefer a debate.”
While political crowds may be familiar with the candidates and their positions, it might be just now dawning on many potential voters that there’s a governor’s race going on. That’s why there’s cause to mention Republican candidate Joe Kirkpatrick, who is often excluded from major events because of fund-raising levels but is working as hard as any of the candidates. Meanwhile, several independent candidates will be on the ballot.
A big reason candidates have been doing forums for so long is the simple fact that they had to launch fund-raising efforts long before an official campaign begins. In fact, frustration over raising money has been a major factor why some candidates have already dropped out on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the campaign.
Then there’s the Democrats’ own special factor. At one time, the Democratic field included McWherter, Kim McMillan, Jim Kyle, Roy Herron and Ward Cammack. All but one, McWherter, have dropped out, for various reasons, which leaves forum organizers with an odd situation. Just at a time many voters are beginning to pay attention, all but one of the Democrats are out.
The real competition at the moment is the three-way battle for the Republican nomination. So it creates a somewhat awkward situation to have McWherter on stage with the three Republicans. Until McMillan quit the race to run instead for mayor of Clarksville, an audience could normally count on at least two candidates from each party to participate.
McWherter has expressed his own frustration with a forum-style program.
“I really would like to have the opportunity to talk about the tax incentive program I want to deliver for small business in this state,” McWherter said. “It’s hard to do that in a 90-second response.
“I want to talk about that and the need to go out and recruit these supplying industries for Volkswagen, Wacker and Hemlock. I’m a little frustrated truthfully with not being able to spend a little more time going a little more in-depth. We’re kind of at the surface level at this time. But I know I’ll get that chance, and I’m excited about being able to do that.”