McWherter comes out swinging at Haslam

NASHVILLE - Democrat Mike McWherter said Friday he believes his "centrist" views should appeal to some of the 53 percent of Republican voters who cast ballots against Bill Haslam in the GOP's gubernatorial primary contest on Thursday.

"I think there was clearly a lot of push back to Bill Haslam," McWherter, a Jackson businessman, told Nashville-based political reporters Friday. "When you spend $9 million to $10 million and you get less than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, I think there's a lot of dissatisfaction."

According to the Tennessee Secretary of State's office, Haslam, who is Knoxville's mayor, won the GOP primary with 341,229 votes or 47.3 percent, compared to Republican U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp's 210,332 or 29.18 percent. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, had 158,960, or 22 percent.

Haslam disputed McWherter's assertions that GOP primary voters could be up for grabs following Thursday's election.

"We see that pretty differently," he said. "We've already been overwhelmed by the support of folks who've come over to us. ... Frankly, a whole lot of Democrats have called. We feel good about what's going on."

As Haslam huddled with staffers at his Nashville campaign headquarters Friday, planning his next moves, McWherter spent the first full day of the general election campaign on the offensive.

He criticized Haslam for raising Knoxville property taxes in his first year as the city's mayor and for continuing to refuse to divulge his stake in the Haslam family's Pilot Corp., which operates the national Pilot Travel Centers chain of interstate truck stops.

"Bill Haslam is clearly hiding something - something he's ashamed of," said McWherter, son of former Gov. Ned McWherter. "And I don't know what that is and, until he discloses it, I don't guess any of us will."

In a subsequent interview, Haslam, a former Pilot president, said the issue was fully aired during the GOP primary.

"I've been as clear as I can about everything I own," Haslam said. "Everybody understands where my income comes from. I've divulged more than what's required."

But Haslam has repeatedly refused to disclose his federal income tax returns or any information of money he earned through Pilot Corp. He has released information summarizing his "non-Pilot" income and federal taxes since becoming Knoxville's mayor in 2003 but also refused to release his net worth.

Pilot in 2008 had an estimated $16 billion in annual sales.

The owner of a beer distributorship, McWherter has released his federal tax returns. He estimated that his net worth, depending on what his investments would bring if sold, could range from $7 million to $20 million.

During the primary, Haslam injected $1.4 million of his own money into the campaign. McWherter put in $1 million of his own funds.

Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said McWherter may try to appeal to tea party members and others for whom that sort of populist theme may prove attractive. But he noted Wamp "could never make stick" the assertion that Pilot "is ripping you off."

Oppenheimer said he thinks McWherter "faces an uphill situation here because the state has a Republican lean. This does not look like a good year for Democrats nationally."

In a July Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey conducted on behalf of the Times Free Press and other major newspapers, Haslam led McWherter 49 percent to 31 percent with 20 percent undecided.

During Thursday's primary, Haslam won 75 counties including Knox, Davidson and Shelby counties. Wamp won 15, including Hamilton and Bradley and a number of counties he represents or formerly represented in Congress.

Ramsey won four counties. He and Haslam tied in Carter County, home of state House Speaker Kent Williams, the independent who has clashed repeatedly with him.

According to the Secretary of State's Election Coordinator's Office, 720,804 people cast ballots in the GOP gubernatorial primary. With only one Democrat on the ballot, the Democratic primary drew 284,200.