NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is keeping a keen eye on the 2018 campaign to succeed him but says he won't be choosing sides in a party primary that may prove as rough and tumble as his own 2010 bid.
"I am an interested observer, like everyone else," the term-limited Haslam told reporters earlier this week. "I do not have a favorite. I won't be endorsing anyone in the primary. But having been through that process eight years ago, I've watched with particular interest."
Haslam said he's spoken with almost all the major announced or expected Republican and Democratic candidates and knew most of them already.
The governor said he's keeping up with the campaign for several reasons.
One is strictly personal and includes empathy for anyone embarking on a statewide campaign, an ordeal he described from experience as a "physically grueling process that has a certain personal vulnerability to it that takes most people a while to get used to."
Haslam's other interest deals with his own administration's legacy. "You know, you do this job for now coming on 6 1/2 years, and you put certain things in place. You're really interested in who takes your place."
Will his successor "keep that same emphasis on education?" the governor asked, adding "We made great great strides" in education and economic development. "But it'd be easy to go back."
Haslam said he's already shared with interested candidates his own experience as Knoxville mayor, entering the 2010 governor's race nearly two years ahead of the general election.
At one point, Haslam, a billionaire whose father founded what's now the nation's largest truck stop chain, Pilot Flying J, was in a four-person GOP primary. Plenty of sharp elbows ere flung, mostly at him.
"There's a certain vulnerability to being a candidate on the statewide stage for a two-year period that you're probably not used to," Haslam said as he reflected. "I've been a mayor and so we'd had local media, but it's a different thing having statewide media."
The 2010 GOP primary was a donnybrook. Then-U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, another candidate, repeatedly questioned Haslam's accomplishments as company president at Pilot.
At one point Wamp compared Haslam to the character of nice-guy Bobby Ewing on the 1970s/1980s prime-time soap opera "Dallas."
"He's a nice man — Bobby was the nicest guy in that family — but he was never in charge," Wamp said as he sought to belittle Haslam's achievements. Wamp also charged that a Pilot Travel Centers subsidiary "operates casinos and other casino games in at least three states" and has ties to "international gaming interests."
Around the same time, questions popped up over hefty payments made by a nonprofit regional economic advocacy group to a public relations firm later employed by Wamp's campaign.
An irate Wamp insisted the Haslam campaign had stirred up a bogus issue, which the Haslam campaign denied. Haslam consultant Tom Ingram sought to sow doubts about the congressman's stability, saying, "We always knew he'd come unraveled, we just thought it would be sooner."
Haslam eventually won the primary with 47 percent of the vote.
Unlike 2010, where Haslam was the only wealthy candidate who could make up fundraising shortfalls with personal cash, 2018 could prove to be the millionaires' primary.
Of three announced GOP candidates, two are millionaires who are largely new to the political process: Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, the governor's former chief of economic development, and Franklin businessman Bill Lee.
State Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, is also running.
Those taking hard looks at the GOP contest include U.S. Rep. Diane Black. She and her husband, David Black, are millionaires.
Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, is weighing a run, as is state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, of Collierville, who also appears to be a possible candidate to fill a vacant West Tennessee federal judgeship.
On the Democratic side, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is officially running. State House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, R-Ripley, has yet to announce but is expected to run.
"I've actually talked to, probably, almost every potential candidate, including some of the Democrats more from a personal standpoint," Haslam said.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.