NASHVILLE — A year out from Tennessee Republicans' 2018 gubernatorial primary, the sharp elbows already are in play.
As four of the five major GOP hopefuls appeared together at a Sunday forum in Franklin, Tenn., the latest official entrant, U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Diane Black, R-Tenn., praised President Donald Trump, castigated congressional Republicans as "weak" and ineffectual and then tried to lump Tennessee Republican officials in with them.
"We can find Republicans who are too weak or too meek right here in Nashville as well," the Gallatin congresswoman told hundreds of attendees at state Sen. Jack Johnson's annual "Boots & Jeans, BBQ & Beans" event on Sunday.
Black added that "the people of Tennessee did not give us a majority to be meek. They made us the majority so we could do what we say we can do. And that's the job of our next governor. To lead this state in a way with a firm hand and a strong spine. And that's what the state of Tennessee needs is a strong leader."
Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican and gubernatorial candidate, who also attended the event, wasn't amused.
"I am very proud of what the Republicans, since we have been in the majority party, have done in this state," Harwell later told reporters from the Times Free Press and The Associated Press.
And in a direct jab at Black, Harwell added that since Tennessee Republicans assumed total control of the General Assembly seven years ago, GOP lawmakers "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."
That was a reference to the national GOP's inability after years of promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Meanwhile, although Black's Budget Committee has passed a federal budget blueprint, it has yet to make it through the full chamber, let alone start moving in the U.S. Senate.
Earlier, Harwell told Republicans that it's "amazing since we took the majority and I was honored to be elected speaker what we have been able to accomplish in our great state. We haven't been talking about it, we've done it."
She touted the state's abolishing the inheritance tax, gift tax and Hall Income Tax on investments, with Tennessee being the lowest-debt state in the country and having one of the best-funded public pension plans.
"We've reformed our unemployment and workers compensation bills when I came into office, making this a stable environment, and I can't tell you how many businessmen still come up to me and thank me for doing just that," Harwell said.
Other GOP gubernatorial candidates attending Sunday's event were Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet and Franklin businessman Bill Lee.
While Black hopes to appeal to GOP conservatives, Beavers, a hard-right icon, said she decided to run amid calls from supporters who told her they wanted a "good conservative" in the GOP primary.
When Black announced her candidacy last week, Beavers tweaked Black with this tweet: "The more moderates in the Governor's race the better!"
In speaking to Republicans on Sunday, Beavers touted her early support of Trump as well as her opposition to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's gas tax increase.
"I did not feel that with a $2 billion surplus that we should increase taxes on people," said Beavers, who also cited her support of state legislation expanding gun-carry laws.
Speaking later, the senator said she wasn't especially impressed by Black, noting, "I think everybody's ready for Washington to do something."
At the same time, Beavers isn't exactly a fan of Harwell either, noting the speaker ultimately wound up supporting Haslam's gas tax hike. Harwell initially opposed the bill but wound up voting for the measure, which also cut a number of general fund taxes, including cutting the sales tax on food by a percentage point.
Lee, who owns Lee Co., a major mid-state comprehensive facilities and home services company employing some 1,200 workers, acknowledged to Williamson County Republicans that he's new to the political process.
But he cited a series of life experiences, including his mentoring of a former felon released from prison which Lee said "opened my eyes up to the whole issue of public safety, recidivism, sentence reform, law enforcement — things that matter to every single one of us."
Lee said he got appointed to a Haslam task force and saw firsthand public policy being made.
"That's when I sat back and realized that leadership and vision, having strategy, is what is needed in all parts of our government. I've been living most of my life to make life better for 1,200 plumbers and pipefitters and welders," Lee said, later asking, "What if my job was to do that for 6.5 million people in our state?"
Not attending Sunday's event was Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, Haslam's former economic development commissioner. Boyd's campaign said he had a scheduling conflict.
But Boyd's campaign CEO, Chip Saltsman, told Politico that if the U.S. House fails to pass a budget under the leadership of Black, it would "come into the race."
On the Democratic side, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean faces Tennessee House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.
Both parties' 2018 state primaries are Aug. 2.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.