NASHVILLE -- Republicans Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey say they are in the GOP gubernatorial race to stay, but each claims the same conservative base. Both suggest the other should consider withdrawing from the primary contest.
The two candidates are in a four-way GOP contest that includes Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons. Mr. Haslam has dominated fundraising and recently advertised on television and radio with a multiweek paid media blitz.
"I do think that Lt. Gov. Ramsey and I both have conservative credentials," U.S. Rep. Wamp, R-Tenn., said, adding quickly, "I've got a lot more juice right now, and a whole lot of his support frankly is coming to me. I've got a lot of momentum, and he's got to make that decision on how long he stays."
Lt. Gov. Ramsey, the state Senate's speaker, countered that, "I got half a million dollars more in the bank than he does, so if he wants to get out of the race more power to him. I think he realizes I'm cutting into that conservative base he needs to win because his Washington roots are catching up with him."
While Mr. Haslam and District Attorney Gibbons also seek to highlight their own conservative credentials, U.S. Rep. Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ramsey are seen more as "movement conservatives" on a broad spectrum of issues, said Tennessee Conservative Union President Lloyd Daugherty.
"It very well could be that the conservative vote is split again and it helps nominate Haslam," Mr. Daugherty said. "But someone asked me two or three months ago who should drop out. I'm not a believer in asking someone to drop out. ... You got to go in there and slug it out."
Conservative radio talk show host Steve Gill, whose program airs on WPLZ-FM in Chattanooga and elsewhere in the state, said he also thinks "it would improve the chances of one or the other" if either the Chattanooga congressman or Lt. Gov. Ramsey of Blountville drop out.
However, at this point, he said neither candidate appears willing to get out of the race.
It's not 2006
Mr. Daugherty, Mr. Gill, other conservatives and the candidates themselves largely reject precise comparisons to 2006. That is when former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker beat two conservative GOP congressmen -- Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary -- in the GOP primary.
A self-made millionaire businessman who partially funded his own campaign, Mr. Corker won the primary with 48 percent of the vote.
In this contest, Mr. Haslam is the millionaire businessman who along with family members are co-owners of Pilot Travel Centers, a national chain of truck stop/convenience stores.
"Bill Haslam is not Bob Corker," U.S. Rep. Wamp said. "Bob Corker is a self-made man and a heat-seeking missile. And I've got a lot more giddyup than Ed Bryant."
Lt. Gov. Ramsey said Mr. Haslam entered the family business "that was pretty well established."
Both men also note they have raised more money than Mr. Bryant and Mr. Hilleary did during their 2006 primary bids.
Former state Sen. David Fowler, R-Signal Mountain, who now heads the socially conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee, said Rep. Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ramsey are "trying to appeal to the social conservatives, but there are a variety of factors that really don't allow you to just break this race down into social conservative and fiscal conservatives."
For example, he said, in his own group, he can find "staunch suporters of all three candidates" -- Rep. Wamp, Lt. Gov. Ramsey and Mr. Haslam.
Tea Party support
Lt. Gov. Ramsey and Rep. Wamp both believe they are positioned to draw support from Tea Party members, whose grass-roots enthusiasm promises to shake up the 2010 election cycle. Both have played up states' rights issues, gun issues and the need to cut government.
Rep. Wamp cited an article in the American Spectator, a national conservative publication, that he says asserts the "grass-roots conservatism that I represent ... has given me the most juice in this campaign. There's a push back against the big money, and there's a belief that Ron Ramsey can't win."
Lt. Gov. Ramsey points to Texas where incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry beat back a GOP primary challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
"In the end I don't think anyone from Washington, D.C., is going to get elected in this environment," said Lt. Gov. Ramsey, who has addressed Tea Party rallies in Nashville and attended an event with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin last month during the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville.
"Zach can't run from the fact that he has never seen an earmark he doesn't like. ... He can't run from the fact that he voted for the bank bailout, so in the end there will be a separation with the conservative voters," the lieutenant governor said.
U.S. Rep. Wamp has defended his earmarks, noting it would be "ridiculous" not to support projects such as a Chickamauga Dam lock replacement.
Regarding his vote for the $700 million Troubled Asset Relief Program, the congressman recalled that at the time there was a crisis atmosphere with fears of a worldwide economic collapse.
"I tell people all the time that if that's the one vote you have angst with me about, I'm sorry for having to cast (the) vote. It made me sick," he said.
Chattanooga Tea Party founder and president Mark West said "we feel like it's still a little bit early for us to be leaning toward one or the other" and the group plans to host separate gubernatorial candidate forums for the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Still, he said, "Zach Wamp didn't do himself any favors when he voted for that legislation (bank bailout) in this present day and time where so many citizens are concerned. ... That was not a good day for Zach Wamp. I think many people are concerned about his commitment to the Constitution."
U.S. Rep. Wamp said the bank bill was just one of thousands of votes he has made. He cited other measures he opposed such as Democrats' federal stimulus package and, when Republicans controlled Congress, a huge Medicare expansion.
"I've got scars on my back from my own party's leadership for being a little bit of a rebel," U.S. Rep. Wamp said.
Meanwhile, he said, Lt. Gov. Ramsey "voted for the largest tax increase in the history of our state. And he said in 2001, 'Well, I guess the income tax is the way to go.'"
Lt. Gov. Ramsey has acknowledged voting for the 1 cent sales tax increase in July 2002. But he said it came as Republican Gov. Don Sundquist was pressing legislators to approve the controversial plan.
"In the end we pulled a coalition together, Democrat and Republican, passed the sales tax increase, drove a stake in the heart of an income tax forever and went home," Lt. Gov. Ramsey.
Ramsey adviser Brad Todd said Lt. Gov. Ramsey has "has always been against an income tax and did everything in his power to stop it. He stood up to his own party's governor to stop an income tax. He spilled blood on the floor to stop it. Congressman Wamp knows Ron Ramsey fought the income tax and he can't credibly fake that he doesn't know it."