NASHVILLE - Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble has the field in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District largely to himself for now as he runs for the 11-county district's first contest with no incumbent in 16 years.
"We feel like we're starting to build a little momentum, and hopefully we'll be able to carry that through the election," said Sheriff Gobble, who last week visited with Hamilton County Republicans and attended a U.S. Department of Energy forum in Oak Ridge.
Other would-be candidates continue to weigh their options on the seat that incumbent U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., says he is giving up to run for governor in 2010.
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Robin Smith of Hixson said things "are progressing nicely" as she explores running in the 3rd, which stretches from Chattanooga on the Georgia border north past Oak Ridge before curling east around Knox County and touching the Kentucky border.
"Everywhere I've been going, I'm receiving a lot of encouragement," said Mrs. Smith, who emphasized she has made no decision.
State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, likewise are pondering bids and expect to make a final decision when the General Assembly concludes its business, possibly in May or June.
"I think it's early. I just think people have campaign/political fatigue," said Sen. Watson, noting the recent city elections in Chattanooga, which followed a two-year presidential campaign.
He said he remains "committed to dealing with what I was elected to do right now and not gaze into the future."
Rep. McCormick said there is plenty of time to make a decision by early summer.
"No one's really emerged that's really a consensus candidate, so the door is wide open," he said.
Even though the average Republican performance in the district is now estimated by political strategists at about 58 percent of the vote, Tennessee Democrats haven't completely given up on the district.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester acknowledged the 3rd District represents a "tough and extremely competitive district for Democrats." But he believes successes by President Barack Obama "will serve as a good platform for a strong Democratic candidate" in 2010.
Mr. Forrester said Democratic and Republican candidates are not rushing in to run for Congress because of lingering doubts that U.S. Rep. Wamp may dash back to run for the seat if his GOP gubernatorial primary campaign fizzles.
"I think the congressman would rethink his strong commitment to not run again, I'd say in the winter of 2010, if his prospects for governor continue to dwindle," said Mr. Forrester of U.S. Rep. Wamp, who broke his 1994 term limit-pledge to run again in 2006.
Rep. Wamp recently said he remains committed to running for governor.
Attorney Warren Gooch, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., a Democratic fundraiser who has been involved in contests including Democrat Al Gore's U.S. Senate races, is interested in running but acknowledged it will be a "challenge" for a Democrat.
Running a competitive campaign would take $1.5 million, he said, adding that presumes there is no contested Democratic primary.
"I don't think it's a lost cause," Mr. Gooch said. "But you need to be objective and be honest with people."
Also reportedly taking a look at the seat is Paula Flowers, a former state Department of Commerce and Insurance commissioner. Efforts to contact here were unsuccessful.
State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who is mulling a possible gubernatorial bid in 2010, sidestepped questions about whether he would consider a 3rd District bid.
About 43 percent of the Republican primary vote is in Hamilton County while about 17 percent is in Bradley County, Republicans said.
Former state Sen. David Fowler, R-Signal Mountain, said he thinks Sen. Watson and Rep. McCormick are positioned to move up in the legislature and that Mrs. Smith is best positioned to run for Congress, given fundraising skills she has developed and ties she has forged with grass-roots GOP activists in Hamilton County and across the district.
"She would be the odds-on favorite," Mr. Fowler said.
As a working mother, Mrs. Smith said she has to work out two issues before she decides to make a run: making sure her decision is good for her family and making sure the decision makes financial sense.
"With a 16-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter, there are certain expenses that come with a car and university tuition I have to fulfill as a parent," she said. "It's just a reality. So at this point I'm ... looking at if this is going to work."