Gubernatorial candidates launch The Clueless Offensive 

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam toured the state for the first time as a candidate for governor last week, giving a surprisingly clueless performance for Nashville's media.

"We're going into this with eyes wide open," he said. "The process of running for office teaches you a lot about how to act in that office and how to lead."

Good thing the election is nearly two years away. That'll give Haslam plenty of time to figure out what to do if he's elected. He showed he's got a lot to learn.

Haslam, dubbed "a Bredesen with charisma" by one columnist, is the son of Pilot Oil Co. founder Jim Haslam, and his wealth is why most observers think he's the leading Republican candidate. But he was fuzzy on major issues during his Nashville visit, notably about whether to amend the state constitution to strip away abortion rights. The abortion amendment is probably the top priority of the new Republican majority. Yet somehow Haslam didn't know what to say about it.

"I have always been pro-life since I knew it was an issue," he said. "In terms of a constitutional amendment, I'd want to see what the plan is and how it's structured, etc."

Pressed on how he couldn't have formed an opinion on such a highly publicized matter, Haslam added, "The more I know about that, I think I'll probably be for it. But in terms of sitting here today and saying I'm going to sign on the dotted line, I'd want to know a little bit more."

Haslam was equally devoid of thought on whether to change the way Tennessee picks judges: "Judicial selection is a great question and quite frankly I need to do a little bit more work. ... I need to do a little more background work, quite frankly, before I can give you a full position on that."

On the subject of taxes, he recognized that sales taxes are insufficient and riddled with unfair loopholes, but he doesn't want to remove exemptions and he's also against an income tax. OK then, what do we do? Haslam doesn't know.

Assuming Haslam eventually is able to develop opinions, his candidacy still faces hurdles on at least three counts: He raised taxes as Knoxville's mayor. And he belongs to Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which is anathema to the gun nuts who hold power in the GOP. Meanwhile, his family business is oil, which is not too popular these days. Congressman Zach Wamp referred to this last liability in a weekend interview with right-wing radio host Steve Gill.

Holding the post position for the political chump du jour is Bill Gibbons, a white-haired prosecutor from Memphis who also entered the GOP field after Bill Frist said he wouldn't run. Gibbons appeared before Nashville's TV cameras to say he wants to do big things as governor. He'll make sure to tell us what those things are as his fabulous campaign unfolds in the coming months.

"It's easy for us to engage in a lot of vague rhetoric, but I think voters deserve to know specifically what we'd do if we're elected governor," he declared.

Gibbons must have provided 10 minutes worth of variants of the above sentence. When he finished, your correspondent tried to liven things up by inviting him to comment on Haslam's failure to inform himself. But Gibbons wouldn't bite. Guess he was afraid he'd step on his message for the day, though we're not exactly sure what that was.

No fewer than a dozen very ambitious people from both parties are supposedly thinking about running. The list: Marsha Blackburn, Ron Ramsey, Beth Harwell, Doug Horne, Harold Ford Jr., Lincoln Davis, Roy Herron, Andy Berke, Matt Kisber, Jim Kyle, Mike McWherter, and some super-rich guy named Ward Cammack.

Only one Democrat, former House majority leader Kim McMillan, is officially in the running. But most party insiders see her as a weak candidate, chiefly because of her support for the state income tax during the Sundquist administration.

Horne, the former state party chair who also favored the income tax, wants a meeting among prominent Democrats to anoint a nominee. "Hopefully, they'll think it might be me," he says. "It's obviously going to be a high-dollar race. Whoever runs is going to have to have to have a lot of contributions and some of their own money, and I do (have money)."

Horne is indeed rich—and also really stupid if he thinks this would work. Since November, when they lost the legislature, Democrats have fallen into serious disarray. As Jimmy Naifeh says, "We can't even get together and determine who wants to be the party chairman."

Email jwoods@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9445.

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