Tennessee politics is topsy-turvy, now that Mike McWherter, the Democrat in the governor's contest, is treating liberals like the Plague and running to the right of Bill Haslam, the Republican nominee.
McWherter adviser Mike Kopp says Haslam has "a glass jaw." And after last week's primary elections, McWherter came out swinging (as headlines blared across the state), hitting Haslam as soft on guns and taxes and sounding a lot like the Knoxville mayor's GOP foes, Doc Ock and the Green Goblin — er, Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey. It was like the awful sequel to a horror movie: "More Cutthroat! More Shameless! It's ... The Campaign That Wouldn't Die!"
When Haslam became Knoxville's mayor, "the very first thing he did was raise property taxes on the backs of Knoxvillians," McWherter said in a conference call with statehouse reporters. What's more, he said, Haslam's support for the Second Amendment is "very plastic," which we assume is something softer and less manly than cold hard blue steel.
"Mayor Haslam joined the NRA in order to run for governor," McWherter said. "And if you ask him, he says he's never owned a gun. I've been a hunter all my life. My son and I both have been members of the NRA, and I've been a member for many years. And I own several guns. I'm a strong proponent of the Second Amendment."
We bet McWherter sleeps with a gun next to his head, and he probably thinks Haslam is a sissy wannabe. Oh, wait — Wamp already said that. That's the problem with sequels. All the best lines have been used.
McWherter, whose normal way of speaking — a lilting hillbilly falsetto — mysteriously has dropped to lower octaves in his first TV ads, is certain he can peel off conservative voters who went for Wamp or Ramsey.
"Clearly they knew what Bill Haslam's message was, and they rejected it," McWherter said. "And so I would think there is a lot of discourse or disapproval within the Republican Party about who their party is today. I can only speculate, but I feel like there's going to be some people who'll be looking very hard at my campaign, my platform, what I stand for, the direction I want to lead Tennessee vs. where Mayor Haslam is."
Indeed, Wamp has hardly been a gracious loser. In his concession speech, he needled Haslam by saying "the best candidate doesn't always win." And at a so-called Republican unity rally, he couldn't resist taking a shot at the party's silk-stocking country-club set — of which Haslam is a longtime member in good standing.
"I want to say this without stepping on any toes," Wamp told the assembled party leaders. "The future of this party and this country is not in Nantucket."
A Wamp campaign operative insisted the congressman was referring to President Obama, who's fond of vacationing in Martha's Vineyard, the next island over from Nantucket. But no one believed that, and reporters quickly noted that Bill Haslam's big brother Jimmy owns a summer home on Nantucket. Naturally, Bill Haslam himself acted as if he'd never heard of the place.
"I don't hang out there," he said at first, then later acknowledged visiting that island oasis for the wealthy: "I just don't have a home there."
The election for the 49th governor of Tennessee apparently will be decided on such inconsequential matters. That's what happens when neither candidate will talk about substance, such as how Tennessee might cope with the catastrophic loss of more than a billion dollars in state government revenue in this recession.
Haslam won't say. What's more, he came close to admitting this week that's because he doesn't have a clue what he'd do.
"When I ran for mayor," he said during a stop at the Elliston Place Soda Shop, "I didn't know at that point in time where all we would cut. You have to get in there in the middle of it and see."
Q: So the reason you're not telling us what you'd cut is because you don't know what you'd cut?
Haslam: Anybody, if you're going to lead something, there's a difference between being on the outside and being on the inside in terms of perspective you have on that.
We took that as a yes.
McWherter prefers to pretend the problem doesn't exist. That makes it easier to call for creating even more red ink by giving as-yet unspecified tax breaks to job-creating businesses. No worries, McWherter says, as he slaps Haslam for all his "doom and gloom" talk.
When you're wooing right-wingers, it's good to sound like their hero Ronald Reagan — upbeat and disconnected from reality. It's morning in Tennessee. And midnight for its voters.
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