IF YOU GO
What: 3rd Congressional District Republican primary debate sponsored by the Chattanooga Tea Party.
Who: Ron Bhalla, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Weston Wamp.
When: Saturday. Doors open at 1 p.m.; debate begins at 2 and ends at 3:30.
Where: Woodland Park Baptist Church, 6735 Standifer Gap Road.
Candidates will sit on stools on a stage; a random draw for seat placement will take place before the debate.
Moderators are Chattanooga Tea Party member Gregg Juster and WGOW-FM "Live and Local" host Brian Joyce.
Some questions will be for all three candidates; others will be tailored to individuals.
The moderators will have latitude to ask follow-up questions if clarification or further discussion is needed.
Each candidate will have two minutes to answer a question.
Attendees are asked to submit questions through the Chattanooga Tea Party's Facebook page or website.
Source: Chattanooga Tea Party
Three Republicans chasing a coveted congressional seat are hoping to impress conservative activists at this weekend's Chattanooga Tea Party debate.
But also at issue is what Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West called "the AWOL candidate."
Two of U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's 3rd Congressional District Republican challengers, Ron Bhalla and Weston Wamp, accepted invitations to spar with the first-term congressman during the 90-minute event Saturday at Woodland Park Baptist Church.
Fleischmann's other GOP opponent, dairy executive Scottie Mayfield, declined to participate. Mayfield also missed a May 23 debate sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and WRCB-TV. The Athens, Tenn., resident issued a statement in May that said debate attendees "have already made up their minds" about elections.
Roane County Tea Party spokesman Chuck Smith said Mayfield rejected invitations to that organization's July 5 debate, unlike Bhalla, Fleischmann and Wamp.
Mayfield said his opponents "would take what he said out of context," Smith said. "I told him, 'That's just politics.'"
Based on interviews with candidates and tea party officials, Mayfield's reluctance to appear is likely to be a point of discussion Saturday.
West cited Mayfield's fundraising prowess and high-profile status as evidence that he should face voters.
"He's the AWOL candidate -- you've got a guy who supposedly is a credible challenger, but he won't show up at any debates," West said. "I guess he thinks he can just buy his way into this position. For me and thousands of other voters, that doesn't sit too well."
Mayfield spokesman Joe Hendrix did not return a call requesting comment.
At the first debate, Wamp, the 25-year-old son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, hammered Fleischmann for a perceived lack of influence in Washington.
Wamp said he would amplify that message on Saturday, but in a phone interview he offered a broadside against the idea that Mayfield is Fleischmann's biggest threat.
"I think it's safe to assume that Scottie is so confident in his yellow-and-brown branding that he doesn't have to ever talk issues or engage in open dialogue with voters," Wamp said. "It's unacceptable."
West said direct confrontation will be encouraged at the debate. Each candidate will have the opportunity to ask any other candidate one question. The questions will be submitted in advance and asked by the moderators.
"At this point, Chuck has not thought about a question he might ask another candidate," Fleischmann campaign spokesman Jordan Powell said. "He is just focused on talking about his proven conservative voting record."
A meet-and-greet session is scheduled after the debate, which comes three weeks before early voting begins.
The meet-and-greet is "to my benefit as a candidate," Bhalla said. "Individually we can talk more in detail and explain our message to voters."
Democrats Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor are competing for their party's nomination. Independent candidate Matthew Denniston also is running.
Primaries are Aug. 2.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...