Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Governor's candidates stake out visions for state's future

By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • July 13, 2010

Tennessee governor's race

The four major candidates for governor debated each other Monday for the last time before primary voting starts, offering competing visions of the state's future but finding some common ground.

Facing each other on a stage at Belmont University, the three Republicans and one Democrat tried to make their cases while on a short leash, as the WSMV-TV/Channel 4 moderators kept response times short throughout the one-hour debate. TV stations across the state broadcast the session.

The questions poured in from the moderators, from citizens participating in the town hall format, from TV viewers across the state, from Facebook users and from the candidates themselves.

U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga asked a fellow Republican, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, why he had given money to former Vice President Al Gore's first presidential campaign.

What about his liberal agenda did you think was worthy of your precious resources?" Wamp asked.

Haslam avoided talking about Gore but said he had supported plenty of conservatives.

"I have an incredible track record over a long period of years of financially investing in a lot of candidates who are strong conservatives from our state," he said.

When a Chattanooga viewer, shown on TV monitors, asked the candidates about removing the sales tax on food for low-income residents, Wamp and Haslam said the issue would have to wait for an economic rebound. The other Republican, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, suggested looking at cutting other taxes.

"We are a sales-tax-based state," Ramsey said.

But Mike McWherter, the lone Democrat in the race, said reducing the tax on groceries would be one of his top priorities in a push to help working families.

"Here's where there's a real distinction between the Democrat running in this race and the Republicans," said McWherter, a Jackson businessman and son of former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter.

McWherter will face the winner of the Republican primary in November. Early voting for the primaries starts Friday. Election day is Aug. 5.

The candidates also took various approaches to a question about a specific state program they would cut. Wamp talked about how "we're all going to have to tighten our belt," while Haslam said he had learned as mayor that "you don't make three or four big cuts, you make a thousand small ones." McWherter said Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen had kept the state budget "pretty tight."

Ramsey, who has talked of cutting one-third of the state's departments but hasn't said which ones, then said he was the only candidate "who actually has a plan to cut state government," though he didn't go into details.

"Either my opponents don't know how or don't have the guts to do it," he said.

Asked what they had learned from the recent floods, McWherter was more specific than the others. He said cities would have to "make surewe don't allow devel op ers to con tinue to put homes in areas that are flood-prone land."

The Republican candidates talked more generally of the heartening response they had seen from volunteers throughout the state. After Ramsey said he had learned "what a great state we live in," Wamp countered, "I didn't learn that; I already knew that."

Wamp and Ramsey have developed a tense relationship as each man has worked to grab enough conservative votes to beat Haslam, who is generally viewed as more moderate. Haslam is a multi-millionaire whose campaign has raised more than $8.7 million — a fact Ramsey and Wamp tried to attack at times during the debate.

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