The Chattanooga Tea Party's 3rd District debate Saturday was pretty much a free-for-all against Republican nominee Chuck Fleischmann, who wasn't there to refute the attacks.
Democratic congressional nominee John Wolfe and independent Mark DeVol used the debate at Woodland Park Baptist Church to criticize Fleischmann.
The GOP nominee pleaded scheduling conflicts to debate organizers, but DeVol had a different explanation. He said the Chattanooga attorney was "up in Washington, D.C., picking out his furniture."
Representatives from the Fleischmann campaign confirmed the scheduling conflict, and said he had already participated in a debate this spring.
Wolfe referred to Fleischmann, who has stayed away from multicandidate events, as the "coward of the county."
The Fleischmann campaign did not return a call seeking comment Saturday night.
Only Savas Kyriakidis, another independent, used the time to promote his campaign. He consistently referred to his Christian principles and, in his closing remarks, said, "I am not saying put religion in government. I am saying put God back into the equation of government."
Kyriakidis and DeVol emphasized their conservative credentials to the audience of 100 or so people. Independent candidates Don Barkman, Gregory C. Goodwin, Robert Humphries and Mo Kiah were not present.
DeVol said he is a small-business owner who believes the way to determine constitutionality of laws is by rereading the original Constitution.
Kyriakidis, a restaurant owner, referred often to his military experience as a jumping-off point for his stance on several issues.
Margaret Hyder, 66, said she supports Kyriakidis by making phone calls, sending out e-mails and praying.
"He could easily become president," Hyder said.
Wolfe stumbled over the words "Iraq" and "Iran" in his answers. A group of his supporters clapped after almost every answer, although the audience was asked at the start to hold its applause.
Some voters notice Fleischmann's absence, too.
Nathan Bowen, 28, said he came to learn about the candidates and was leaning towards DeVol because of his business-minded approach to government.
"Yeah, [Fleischmann] should have been here," Bowen said. "But the sponsors of the event were more polite than the candidates."
Wolfe supporter Harriet Cotter, 74, said Fleischmann's absence looked "weak" and "afraid."
"I wish Mr. Fleischmann had the nerve to show up," Cotter said. "It was a bad move on his part."
But a Fleischmann supporter Tyler Howell, 24, is sure his candidate will win even without participating in debates.
"I feel like our country is at stake and we have to send the right people to Washington," Howell said.