ATHENS, Tenn. - For the second time in a week, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann found himself on the wrong end of the schedule.
He was set to deliver the keynote speech Friday at the McMinn County Lincoln Day dinner at Tennessee Wesleyan College, but he left early to inspect damage from tornadoes that lashed several counties in the 3rd Congressional District.
Last week, when GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum arrived 30 minutes early to a stop at a Chattanooga Tea Party event, organizers bumped Fleischmann's pre-Santorum speaking spot to the end of the program. As the freshman Republican congressman belatedly took the stage, hundreds swarmed Santorum for an autograph or walked out the door.
McMinn County used to be part of the Knoxville-centric 2nd Congressional District, manned by U.S. Rep. John "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. since 1988. It was moved into the 3rd District just this year.
So when Fleischmann stood up early and faced some of McMinn County's most plugged-in Republicans Friday evening, he took the opportunity to introduce himself. (In fact, he referenced the musical "The King And I" and one of its signature songs - "Getting To Know You.")
He dove into a personal speech that detailed his mother's death from cancer, his college years at the University of Illinois and the early days of his law practice, when he and his wife "made $50 the first month."
But he quickly segued into politics, mentioning that he's never missed a vote and criticizing "rascal liberal Democrats." At one point he said Americans need to send Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "back to Utah." Reid is from Nevada.
When he excused himself to go view the storm damage, it was his Republican primary opponents, Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp, who got to stay and glad-hand the committed party members.
Mayfield talks business
Mayfield lives in McMinn County, one of several new counties the state Legislature drew into Fleischmann's 3rd Congressional District as part of redistricting.
Wearing his trademark bowtie, Mayfield spoke for three minutes, waving hello to people he knew, mentioning them by name and promising a businessman's approach to government.
"My 40 years of business - not politics - makes me a good candidate," he said. "I know how to listen to people. ... I know how to make a profit in the world of business, and unfortunately I know how to cut back when things aren't going really great."
Mayfield brought up the national debt, job creation and other conservative talking points, but he never differentiated himself from Fleischmann on matters of policy.
A new generation
Wamp, the 24-year-old son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, was introduced by his younger sister, Coty. She quickly addressed her brother's critics, saying, "Weston's campaign has nothing to do with our dad." Zach Wamp did not attend Friday night's dinner.
3RD DISTRICT COUNTIES
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"[Weston] and I virtually grew up in the halls of the United States Congress," Coty Wamp said. "We understand it like few Americans ever will."
Her brother focused on his youth, encouraging people to visit his website and research his seven-point plan, "Enough is Enough."
"In Washington right now there's a belief that our country can sustainably spend money that it doesn't have," he said. "For my generation, it spells disaster."
Two additional 3rd District Republican candidates, Ron Bhalla and Jean Howard-Hill, delivered their stump speeches at Friday night's dinner. Both focused on accessibility.
"I'm going to give you the opportunity to say, 'Girl, you're messing up,' or 'Girl, you're doing good,'" Howard-Hill said.
Democrats in the 3rd District race are Union County physician Mary Headrick and Chattanooga businessman Bill Taylor.