In case you've been asking yourself whether Mike McWherter's campaign for governor will ever show signs of life, wonder no more. In a sit-down interview with the Scene, McWherter revealed his campaign's seeming somnolence actually is a clever, rarely-before-tried political strategy.
"Our slogan in this campaign has always been to run silent and to run deep," McWherter says. Pressed on his meaning — since when do campaigns strive not to be heard? — he elaborates.
"It's from an old World War II movie," he says, greeted by blank faces. "It's like submarines. You run silent. You run deep. You develop your program and then you surface and then it's game on."
Ah, so now it all becomes clear. It's the Hunt for Red November! McWherter is a sleek, deadly submarine gliding silently toward the unsuspecting Bill Haslam. At the right moment, he'll burst to the surface and — kaboom!
McWherter's torpedoes, to continue his metaphor, are TV ads he now says will blast away around the start of early voting next week, although at press time he'd yet to buy airtime. There was no reason to run ads earlier, he says, because no one would've paid attention to them.
That silly Haslam. He's wasted so much cash, hasn't he?
"John Q. Public and Jane Q. Public do not focus on this race until October, and then it's a mad scramble to get your message out," McWherter says. "You can spend as much money as you want up until this point in time and they may know sorta who you are, but they are not listening to what you say until October and then they become concerned because they know that they're going to have a new governor. They've got to make a choice.
"Strategically, we've had our plan and we've worked it right on through, and I think we're right on target for where we need to be in this race."
McWherter claims this with a straight face. It beats declining comment when reporters inevitably ask how he could possibly win this election now that he's so far behind. While McWherter was waiting on voters to pay attention, more than half of them were busy making up their minds.
Polls show the Son of Ned running 25 points or more behind, with Haslam in the mid-50s. To win now, McWherter would have to persuade not only undecided voters but a significant percentage of those who've already chosen their guy — a seemingly impossible job even for a well-funded candidate. McWherter's campaign is running on fumes.
It's too bad, because after nearly two years of sleepwalking — rousing himself only occasionally to attack Haslam as a deceitful, greedy oil man — McWherter finally has something to say worth hearing.
Haslam is an eat-your-veggies Republican who campaigns near exclusively on cutting the budget. Austerity is his byword. In fact, it's just about his only word. He won't say how he'd cut it, and hasn't offered a single significant policy proposal. In his latest TV ad, his big prescription for health care is "personal responsibility." There's a comfort to working people every time their hard-hit families can't afford treatment.
When McWherter hits Haslam as an uncaring technocrat — the ultimate bean counter who'd refuse state government for struggling workers and families — the blow lands on target. McWherter wants to give tax credits for small businesses that create jobs.
"My focus is on helping the working families of this state," he says. "And that is not Bill Haslam's agenda. All he talks about is cutting the state budget. That's all he talks about. He says, 'I'm a tremendous leader. I know how to do this.' But he doesn't tell you anything about what he'll do. He says, 'I'm going to cut this budget and I'm going to balance it.' Well, what kind of message is that for the working families of Tennessee? I think it's none."
McWherter's tax-break proposal is vague. He doesn't know how big the credits should be, much less how much they'd cost. Haslam contends the idea is irresponsible with state revenues running more than $1 billion below the pre-recession level.
But in this mind-numbing campaign filled with windbaggery, it's at least a point of legitimate debate. With anxious voters looking for help from their state government, that debate is one McWherter could win — if he'd only stop running so silently.
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