Almost magically, while Republicans have been scrapping in their party primary and dominating the headlines in the governor's race, the pieces quietly have been falling into place for Democrat Mike McWherter.
First one and then another of his rivals have dropped out, leaving the son of Ned as the clear and virtually unchallenged front-runner for his party's nomination. Only Kim McMillan, the underfunded and little-noticed former House majority leader, remains with McWherter in the Democratic primary.
The last opponent to go was Jim Kyle, veteran state senator from Memphis. A week or two beforehand, Kyle had lunch with Ned McWherter in Nashville to suss out the strength of the McWherter family's commitment to the race.
The former governor has always relished his role as political chess master, manipulating one campaign after another for the benefit of himself or his friends. Now at age 79 and long removed from public life, he's back working behind the political scenes, buttonholing contributors and lining up support for Mike.
"Governor McWherter did tell Jim that obviously Mike's in the race to stay and that he's 100 percent supportive of him. He was straight up with Senator Kyle," says McWherter campaign manager Kim Sasser Hayden.
When Kyle dropped out, he cited meager fund-raising and hostility among voters toward Democrats, and that was widely taken as yet another sign of the pathetic state of the once-proud party in Tennessee.
But by quitting, Kyle strengthened his party's chances to keep the governor's office in November. In fact, anointing a nominee, which is essentially what the party has done, might have been the only way for Democrats to make themselves competitive.
Republicans in the race have outraised Democrats by a 5-to-1 margin so far. McWherter now can save his campaign cash for the general election. He also avoids the difficult primary fight that likely will weaken the eventual Republican nominee.
Instead of fending off Democratic attacks, McWherter is free to throw knives directly at the Republicans. He did just that last week, blithely ignoring McMillan at a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce forum to call out Bill Haslam for refusing to disclose all his income or to agree to put his Pilot Corp. holdings into a blind trust if he's elected governor.
"Before I start, I want to get something off my chest," McWherter said. "There's been some issues about candidate disclosure. I have fully disclosed my income taxes for the last three years, and ladies and gentlemen, when I get a chance to go home and figure out last year's, I'll be disclosing last year's as well. I fully intend to put all of my assets into a blind trust once I'm elected. I believe being open and transparent with the voters of Tennessee is a pact you make when you ask for their trust."
McWherter added: "The voters are fed up with politicians who would try to use public office for personal gain. If elected governor, I intend to go the extra mile to ensure that the public's trust is not violated under my administration."
Haslam is taking flak from everywhere. At a GOP forum last week, Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons likened Haslam's refusal to disclose his Pilot earnings to "an Olympic athlete declining to take a drug test."
Haslam dismissed all the criticism as mere political gamesmanship. It's a preoccupation of his opponents and the media, he says; voters don't give a damn whether he discloses his income.
"Almost all the people bringing this up are the people who are running against me," Haslam said after speaking in Nashville to the Republicans' First Tuesday club. "In the end, I think people right now understand that these are serious times facing us in this state, and most people quite frankly see this as the politics that it is."
Given the political climate, he said, the GOP nominee should win. But if Republicans sink into the mud in their primary, he warned, they might wind up spoiling their golden opportunity.
"The key here is to have a primary that's talking about issues that people care about. When people say things about you and you're throwing stuff back at them, there's a real reason. I honestly think people want to talk about what matters right now. And I think the more we can do that, it will guarantee that a Republican will be our next governor."
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