Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam won the Republican nomination for governor Thursday, dashing the hopes of his more conservative GOP rivals U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.
His primary election victory sets up a Nov. 2 general election matchup between Haslam, 52, and Democratic nominee businessman Mike McWherter, 54, of Jackson.
Wamp, who had hoped to become the first governor from Hamilton County since J.B. Frazier in 1905, came in second place.
Republican candidate Basil Marceaux of Soddy-Daisy, who became an Internet sensation, spent nothing and received less than 1 percent of the vote.
Accompanied by his wife, Crissy, and the couple's three children, Haslam told cheering supporters in a crowded Hilton Hotel ballroom in downtown Nashville that Tennessee "has to have a governor that has the right experience" to create jobs, move education forward and cut government in tough economic times.
He said his work over two decades in the private sector and six years as mayor provide that.
"So here's my message tonight," he said. "Come help us. Whether you're a Republican, an independent, a Democrat, come help us. We all share the same desires and goals."
Earlier, McWherter, with his father, former Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter, and current Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen looking on, said Republicans spent most of their time "arguing over who is the most conservative."
Calling job creation his "No. 1 priority," McWherter said, "I'm all about Main Street, and I think Bill Haslam is all about Wall Street."
In conceding his loss, a still-defiant Wamp addressed his dispirited supporters at the Chattanoogan hotel Thursday night.
"We thought we had enough, but, at the end of the day, we didn't have enough," said the eight-term congressman, who gave up a safe U.S. House seat for his statewide bid.
Wamp was surrounded by his wife Kim, daughter Coty, son Weston and supporters who hugged him. The congressman said he had called Haslam and congratulated him.
Just before conceding, Wamp made an impromptu appearance on stage, telling his supporters he wanted to take time to praise God. He said he had been up in a hotel room watching election results and it was a "little depressing."
Wamp pressed his supporters to make concessions and rally around Haslam and his campaign, even though he said he had been the victim of dirty campaign tactics.
Wamp said money controlled the race in the end.
"We couldn't influence how much the Haslams spent," Wamp said. "It was endless."
He said he also felt the pressures of a huge backlash from the public against all things Washington, D.C. Wamp still has five months left to serve as a U.S. representative before giving up the seat.
Ramsey was more conciliatory.
"This is the beginning of the end," he said. "I have called Bill Haslam and congratulated him on a well-run race. I look forward to working with him to advance our conservative policies."
During the course of the 19-month campaign, Wamp sought to appeal to conservatives including evangelicals. Ramsey pursued the votes of gun owners and tea party activists, while Haslam sought to make his appeal as broad as possible.
In the end, though, all three Republican candidates spent their final weeks attacking each other in television ads.
Haslam drew fire for having raised property taxes 13 percent as mayor and having joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns, led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Wamp described him as a "liberal-to-moderate" candidate.
Wamp repeatedly attacked Haslam, whose family owns Pilot Corp., raising charges Pilot Travel Centers once faced state accusations it gouged customers on gas prices. Pilot settled the case without admitting guilt.
Meanwhile, Wamp was criticized for breaking his term limit pledge and voting for the federal bank bailout. His suggestion that states might consider seceding from the union if the federal government didn't back off drew national headlines and criticism.
And Ramsey took heat for voting for a 1-cent-hike in the state's sales tax, the largest tax increase in Tennessee history. He also made national news with comments to Chattanooga Republicans in which he likened Islam to a "cult."
Spending by the top three major Republican candidates hit $14.7 million by July 26, and Wamp complained the independently wealthy Haslam continued to dump his own money into the contest.
Haslam spent at least $8.8 million, including $1.05 million out of his own pocket, more than twice the combined spending of his two main GOP rivals.
McWherter spent about $1.2 million.
The race is over who will succeed Bredesen, a popular governor who is term limited and cannot seek a third term.
The 49th governor will be sworn in on Jan. 15 and receive an annual salary of $170,340.
Republicans have scheduled an event for Saturday promoting unity in hard-fought races including the gubernatorial primary.
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