Former foes praise Haslam at GOP rally

NASHVILLE - Less than a week ago, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Haslam's GOP rivals, Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey, were attacking the Knoxville mayor's fitness to carry the party's hopes in the governor's race.

But on Saturday, U.S. Rep. Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey appeared at a Tennessee Republican Party unity rally and sang the praises of the man who beat them in Thursday's GOP gubernatorial primary and is now the party nominee.

"Through the course of the last 19 months, Bill Haslam became one of us," said Wamp, who on election eve lashed out at Haslam as a "liberal to moderate" who would be a "puppet" to his father, Pilot Corp. founder Jim Haslam.

Ramsey vowed to cross the state "to help Bill Haslam become the 49th governor."

He called Haslam a "true class act, a good Christian man, a good family man who's a good businessman. We're going to make history this year. For the first time, in January, we're going to swear in a Republican Senate, a Republican House and a Republican governor."

Up to election day, Ramsey was airing ads criticizing Haslam's increasing property taxes as Knoxville mayor and questioning his commitment to gun rights.

A former president of the family's Pilot Corp., Haslam won 47 percent of the GOP vote in Thursday's primary. Wamp took 29 percent while Ramsey came in third with 22 percent.

"Everybody's faced the reality that primaries are hard," Haslam said. "The process we went through, I know it's been beneficial for me. I know that I will be a much better candidate for governor because of that."

U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker appeared with the candidates during the event at the Union Station Hotel in Nashville, which was attended by Republican State Executive Committee members and other party stalwarts.

Also appearing on stage were 3rd Congressional District nominee Chuck Fleischmann, of Chattanooga, who narrowly won a bitter race with former Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Robin Smith, of Hixson, and faces Chattanooga attorney John Wolfe in the Nov. 2 general election.

Dr. Scott DesJarlais, of Jasper, who won the Republicans' 4th Congressional District primary, was there. He faces U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., in the general election.

Winners in Republicans' 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th congressional district primaries also attended the gathering.

Smith did not attend. All the former congressional candidates, including Smith, were invited to the event, said state GOP Chairman Chris Devaney. Only one showed up - Lou Ann Zelenik, who appears to have lost to state Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, in a turbulent three-person GOP primary in the 6th District.

Smith campaign spokesman Mark Winslow, who was at the event, declined to comment to the Times Free Press on why Smith was absent. Winslow told The Associated Press that Smith was at home with her children.

Earlier, Fleischmann said Smith "was kind enough to call me, and we're coming together and we're going to win in November. It always takes some time, but we're going to come together, and we're going to win."

On Thursday, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter questioned whether Haslam could count on full support from the supporters of his opponents.

But Sen. Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, predicted "everybody will be very united. Look, I've been on both sides in primaries. I lost in 1994 and won in '06. I think primaries make the nominees better. I feel like I made Bill Frist a better nominee in '94, and I know that without question, Ed (Bryant) and Van (Hilleary) made me a better candidate in '06."

During Republicans' 1994 U.S. Senate primary, Frist's campaign manager made statewide headlines when he called Corker "pond scum" following a Corker attack.