Weston Wamp questioned U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann's congressional credentials during an aggressive debate Monday, attempting to define Fleischmann as an inflexible creature of Washington in the fight for the Republican nomination in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District.
With the Aug. 2 primary election only two months away, Fleischmann arrived at a crucial moment of his re-election effort armed with a defense of his record and a list of shots targeting Wamp's perceived inexperience as the 25-year-old son of the congressman's immediate predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp.
Several times, Fleischmann described Weston Wamp's reasoning as incorrect, inaccurate and, using a baseball analogy to describe a trio of answers, "0-for-3."
Unbowed, Fleischmann's young rival claimed to be the most powerful advocate on local issues like the Chickamauga lock and the most energetic person ever to run for Congress.
It was Fleischmann's first time to be confronted publicly by a challenger with considerable name recognition, an uncomfortable position often passed up by incumbents running for re-election.
But the debate offered Fleischmann a chance to size up some of his challengers and defend his votes under pressure. In response to a question about allegiances to political action committees located outside the 3rd District, Fleischmann said those groups align with a congressional district known for a "pro-life, pro-gun, fiscally conservative" outlook.
"You sent me there to do a job based on my commitments," Fleischmann told a crowd of about 150 at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "When I got there, me -- the grinder -- worked hard every day."
He was forced into the hot seat time and again, with Wamp and Chattanooga businessman Ron Bhalla acting as a tag team attacking his first and only term in Congress.
"Just how much does it impact us when we're represented in Congress by one of the most divisively partisan people there?" Wamp asked.
But Fleischmann said he's respecting the 3rd District's wishes.
"We have basically blocked the president," he said of the Republican-controlled House.
By the end of the 90-minute debate, the scrutiny appeared to wear on Fleischmann, who received hoots from a host of twentysomething Wamp supporters when he said his only "special interests" are the people of the district.
That statement came after a debate moderator asked him to square his $363,000 in PAC contributions with a 2010 campaign promise that said "special interest groups in Washington will not find an open door in my congressional office."
"If he didn't leave his door open to special interests, he at least let the mailbox or the bank account -- it's a pretty clear violation" of the promise, Wamp said.
The exchange later put Wamp in the interesting position of slamming as "a snake pit" Washington, D.C., where his father broke a campaign term-limit promise to serve 12 years in Congress. (He served 16.) The younger Wamp also gave himself wiggle room on the PAC money question, saying he would accept it from organizations whose "principles and values are aligned with mine."
The landscape of the Republican primary race was on display at the Roland Hayes Music Hall at UTC, where a spirited crowd cheered and occasionally jeered the candidates. It was the first of two locally scheduled Republican debates in a primary that's almost guaranteed to have its share of negative advertising and combative campaigning.
Monday night was Wamp's first chance to share a debate stage with Fleischmann, an opportunity that Athens, Tenn., businessman Scottie Mayfield declined when he rejected repeated invitations to the event, which was sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and WRCB-TV Channel 3. Wamp sought to sell himself as the true alternative to Fleischmann, claiming that his willingness to debate made him a more serious candidate than Mayfield.
Bhalla, Fleischmann and Wamp each characterized as inaccurate Mayfield's recent statement that Medicaid recipients are "nontaxpayers."
"There are other things Mr. Mayfield has said along the way that have caused people to question whether he's prepared to serve in Congress regardless of his 40 years of experience in business," Wamp said.
The dairy executive, self-proclaimed front-runner and leading fundraiser during the first three months of the year was unable to respond, as he was the only 3rd District GOP candidate absent from the stage.
Bhalla, whose campaign cash-on-hand number is $935 while his challengers boast hundreds of thousands in the bank, stressed his platform, which is based on emailing every piece of legislation to 3rd District voters, tallying the majority and voting that way on the House floor.
"Today the technology is available, and it is going to work," he said.
Motioning to his two opponents onstage, he said: "There are already debaters in Washington, and you see where we stand now."
Republicans have won the 3rd Congressional District since the elder Wamp captured his first term in 1994. Maynardville physician Mary Headrick and Chattanooga businessman Bill Taylor are competing for the Democratic nomination, while independent Matthew Deniston also is running.