U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp has challenged Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam to more debates in their Republican gubernatorial primary, but it appears Wamp shouldn’t hold his breath.
The Haslam campaign shows little interest in even considering Wamp’s desire; they point to what is believed to be a record number of joint appearances among the candidates, mostly at forums.
Wamp, from Chattanooga, was shown lagging behind Haslam in a recent independent poll, with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey following in third place as the field heads to the Aug. 5 primary. Early voting has already begun.
The poll, conducted by WSMV-TV in Nashville, showed Haslam with 32 percent of the vote, Wamp with 21 percent and Ramsey with 11 percent but still a high number of undecided votes at 36 percent.
WSMV aired a live debate on July 12, but that is likely to be the last debate before Republican voters choose a nominee.
The candidates have made more than 100 such appearances dating back to last year. In fact, the gubernatorial candidates have made appearances recently at county Republican Party picnics that the main contenders attended and spoke at a year ago. They’re now making repeat appearances at those annual events.
Most of those appearances in the last year, which included numerous indoor dinners in the winter months, have been forums, where candidates each answer the same question but have little interaction with each other and rarely get to engage in meaningful debate.
The debate July 12 allowed candidates the rare opportunity to ask each other questions, although the time for answers was extremely limited as debate organizers tried to get as many questions into the one-hour event as possible.
“Candidates got to ask each other questions, and everybody took a liberal opportunity to ask me questions,” Haslam said.
The attention did appear to focus on Haslam, a clear indication that Republican opponents view him as leading the race and that Democrat Mike McWherter expects to meet Haslam in the general election Nov. 2. McWherter joined Haslam’s Republican opponents in getting in jabs at the Knoxville mayor.
Wamp said in a formal release that more debates would give Haslam the opportunity to publicly address issues that Wamp is raising about Haslam, who has refused throughout the campaign to reveal his income from the privately held family business, Pilot Corp., which recently became Pilot Family J through a merger that makes Pilot Flying J one of the top 10 largest privately owned companies in the nation.
“We’ve had plenty of chances to answer questions of all different types from all types of people,” Haslam said. “We’ve been doing this for a year and a half, and I’m not sure how all of a sudden Zach decided there was a need.
“And why all of a sudden he didn’t think Ron should be a part of that too. That would be my question. Why shouldn’t Ron be a part of that?”
Wamp’s release says Haslam should join him at additional debates, claiming Haslam is “stonewalling” and trying to convince voters that “he’s something that he is not.” The request does not include Ramsey, who has been in the top tier of contenders since the race began.
“I challenge Bill Haslam to come out from behind his big oil money and advertising curtain and debate these issues publicly with me before the voters of this state,” Wamp’s release said.
An underdog asking for direct debates with the leader is common in campaigns. In fact, in 2004, Wamp declined to debate his Democratic opponent in one of his races for the 3rd District congressional seat. A report from the archive of WBIR-TV in Knoxville said Wamp preferred to be “out with the people” rather than debate his challenger, John Wolfe.
Tom Ingram, general consultant to the Haslam campaign and a veteran of major campaigns in the state, said reasons behind the attempt by Wamp for more debates are easy to see.
“The only reason a candidate wants more debates is they have probably run out of money and need the free media, and they’ve seen numbers that cause them to be desperate,” Ingram said. “They’re throwing Hail Marys.
“You were there Monday night. That was a splendid exchange of ideas. We’ve got a schedule from now to the primary to spend with the voters, and that’s where we’re are going to spend it.”
Haslam also pointed to his campaign’s busy schedule leading to Aug. 5.
“We’ve been working hard to make sure we take advantage of them. It’s not exactly like we’ve been avoiding our opponents in this,” Haslam said.
Wamp has not let up on Haslam, however.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” Wamp said. “When there are that many unanswered questions and a candidate is hiding behind $15 million or whatever it’s going to be, we need more debates.
“We need more interaction. There was a big undecided. When there are this many undecided voters this late, we ought to have more debates, not less.”