NASHVILLE - Tennessee's four major Republican gubernatorial hopefuls put their best foot forward when it came to themselves, but occasionally aimed a few kicks at each other Friday night at the Hamilton County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner.
It was the first collective appearance locally by Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons; Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam; Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville; and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Robin Smith, of Hixson, told the crowd of about 500 at The Chattanoogan that "in this room we have the next governor of the state of Tennessee."
During their speeches, both Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Haslam spoke of the need to reform education with Mr. Gibbons, who went first, saying Tennesseans "want a governor who'll go in and shake up things."
Mr. Haslam said 80 percent of Tennessee students are considered proficient on current state tests, but as few as 25 percent may be deemed proficient when new nationally based tests take effect in a year.
"The answer is to raise our standards and expectation. As a state we're about to get slapped in the face," the mayor said.
Lt. Gov. Ramsey, the Senate speaker, who spoke third, jabbed at Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Haslam, the perceived front-runner whose family founded Pilot Oil and are major political fundraisers.
"Mayor Haslam mentioned a lot about education," Lt. Gov. Ramsey said. "I'm kind of a been-there, done-that kind of guy. Some of these guys can talk the talk and are good people, but I'm the only who's been there and walked the walk."
He touted the Senate's recent passage of legislation expanding the pool of poorer students able to attend charter schools. The measure has been delayed in the House.
Earlier, Mr. Haslam noted how then-Chattanooga mayor and current U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., piqued his interest in public service seven years ago while the two were on vacation in Florida.
U.S. Rep. Wamp, who is from Chattanooga, said, "Let me tell you, seven years ago, public service was not a foreign idea to me, because I started 27 years ago, right there, in this county."
The congressman earlier received a standing ovation from many in the crowd, prompting him to observe, "home court advantage. But sometimes that happens."