FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) — The gloves are starting to come off in the race for Tennessee's Republican gubernatorial nomination.
In her first candidate forum since formally joining the race last week, U.S. Rep. Diane Black on Sunday took aim at what she described as "weak-kneed" Republicans in Congress — and inside the state Capitol, where rival candidate Beth Harwell is speaker of the House.
"We can find ... Republicans who are too weak or too meek right here in Nashville," said Black. "Folks, the people of Tennessee did not give us the majority to be meek."
"That's the job of our next governor: To lead the state in a way with a firm hand (and) a strong spine," she said. "What Tennessee needs is a strong leader."
Harwell, who has represented Nashville in the House since 1989, in her speech touted her leadership in the House since becoming the state's first female speaker.
"It doesn't happen by accident that we are the lowest-debt state in the nation, the third-lowest taxed state in the nation," she said.
Harwell didn't appear impressed by Black's comments when asked about them by reporters following the event.
"I am very proud of what the Republicans, since we have been in the majority party, have done in this state," she said. "We have made the transition from being just a political party to being the governing party of the state, and we actually are governing — unlike what you see at the federal level."
Black is the chair of the House Budget Committee, and her opponents are expected to try to tie her leadership role to the so-far unsuccessful efforts to repeal former President Barack Obama's signature health care law.
State Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet said in her remarks that she decided to join the race after fielding calls from supporters who said they wanted a "good conservative in the governor's race." In response to Black's campaign announcement last week Beavers tweeted: "The more moderates in the Governor's race the better!"
Beavers said she opposed a 6-cent gas tax hike passed by lawmakers this year, which Harwell ended up voting for after her efforts to find an alternative road-funding mechanism were defeated.
"I did not feel that with a $2 billion surplus that we should increase taxes on people," she said.
Harwell told a Republican gathering in Nashville last week that it would be "intellectually dishonest" to suggest using one-time savings from the surplus to pay for the recurring expenses of road building and maintenance. She also noted that the program pushed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam also included tax cuts on groceries, manufacturers and earnings from stocks and bonds.
"While the plan was not my first choice, I do believe it was a sound conservative policy," she said.
Businessman Bill Lee acknowledged his lack of experience in public office, but said he would want to govern the state in a manner similar to how he has managed his employees at his family-owned construction and home service company.
"I've been living most of my life to make life better for 1,200 plumbers and pipefitters and welders ... telling them that when I wake up in the morning my job is to make their life better, to create an environment where they can thrive," he said. "What if my job was to do that for 6.5 million people in our state?"
Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd did not attend Sunday's forum because of a scheduling conflict.