That sound you just heard was the Van Hilleary campaign cracking open the champagne and the Phil Bredesen staff lurching toward its campaign playbook.
In one of those periodic tectonic shifts that happen in political contests, your faithful observers down here at the Scene feel certain in stating that Bredesen’s gubernatorial lead over the whiny-voiced Republican from the hinterlands has now evaporated into the cool September night. Ladies and gentlemen, we got us a race.
We thought it could never happen. We thought, for once, a Democratic mayor from Tennessee’s capital city could be elected governor. We thought brains might triumph over, well, brain cell shortage. But everything is lining up just so, the Bredesen camp has played it exceedingly safe, and the Bubbas have emerged from beneath their tractors just long enough to fall in deep embrace with the anti-income tax crowd. With little more than a month left in the campaign, the prospect of another Don Sundquist running our state is slowly coming into focus.
Bredesen can write checks as fast he wants, but let’s be honest: As of the past week, Van has the Big Mo. The poll numbers we’re seeing show it neck-and-neck, the National Rifle Association has given the nod to Hilleary, the Titans are losing, Hilleary has held his own in the debates and Bredesen’s hair is still a mess. Worst of all, the dominating campaign message appears to be what it was yesterday and may still be tomorrow: who can hate the income tax most.
Which candidate can destroy the income tax, never mind that it is already destroyed? Who can foment the greatest discontent and muster yet more anger over something that, well, doesn’t even exist. The sloths are at the gates, and the resentful, angry, tax-hating mobs are growing in numbers. They do not go away.
Van Hillearywho fought in Desert Storm, worked for daddy, then went to Congress, where he acquitted himself honorably if without distinctionis often described among media junkies, political consultants and inside players as a fellow who doesn’t have all his paddles in the water. In other words, a mental zero. An empty suit. No there there. Truth is, he may not be so lacking. As it turns out, he may be an utter genius. Tennessee has a long history of electing the candidate best able to capture the hearts and minds of the rural voter.
Eight years ago, Phil Bredesenphysics major, Harvard graduate, wine collectorlost to Don Sundquista plain-speaking congressman who collected homeless mutts. Sixteen years ago, Ned McWherterthe high school grad who liked to talk on the campaign trail about using Sears catalogs for toilet paperwhipped up on Belle Meade Country Club member Winfield Dunn.
When courting the rural voter, it’s not just about holding a gun, because Bredesen shoots things all the time. For a peek into the rural leitmotif (look it up, Van), take a look at the campaign ads currently airing from the two camps. Bredesen asks that the statute of limitations be extended in cases of sexual abuse against children so that perpetrators can be held accountable for their past misdeeds. Hilleary simply has stock cars racing around a track. Then, some Hilleary campaign slogans are spoken and the candidate brieflythankfullysays as little as possible. In the ads, Bredesen invites voters to understand a legal situation and a legislative remedy. Van Hilleary asks rednecks to ride fast in a souped-up car.
Message to Bredesen: Quit playing it safe. Lock and load.
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