With Lee ahead, pressure is on Dean in Tuesday's debate between Tennessee candidates for governor

Tennessee gubernatorial candidates Democrat Karl Dean, right, and Republican Bill Lee are shown in this composite photo.

NASHVILLE - Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee will face off Tuesday night in Kingsport as the two candidates seeking to become Tennessee's next governor meet in the second of their three planned televised debates.

The 60-minute match in Northeast Tennessee comes with recent polls showing Lee, a successful Williamson County businessman seeking his first public office, with a lead over Dean, a former two-term Nashville mayor.

Observers say the burden is on Dean to alter the race's current trajectory as Lee and Dean vye to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

photo Democratic candidate Karl Dean speaks during the gubernatorial debate at the University of Memphis' Michael D. Rose Theater in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. Republican Bill Lee and Dean square off in a debate in the governor's race in Tennessee. (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal via AP, Pool)
photo Republican Bill Lee speaks at the gubernatorial debate at the University of Memphis' Michael D. Rose Theater in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. Lee and Democrat Karl Dean square off in a debate in the governor's race in Tennessee. (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal via AP, Pool)

"If you look at the polling, Karl Dean needs to do something in these debates to change the direction of the race," said Kent Syler, an assistant professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University.

Syler said he looks for Dean "to be aggressive and work to find issues that differentiate him from Bill Lee and also score points with voters."

Dr. John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, noted debates "are always high-risk things because something could happen that's unexpected that kind of shakes up the race. And so Dean needs something like that in the sense that he wants to change the dynamics."

According to a Real Clear Politics average of three polls from August until last week, Lee leads Dean by 52.7 percent to 39.7 percent. Lee's support has remained at 52 percent and 53 percent while Dean's has reached as high as 43 percent.

Lee's spokeswoman, Laine Arnold, said in a statement that "Bill is thrilled to be back in Kingsport for the Tri-Cities debate. He plans to share why his executive experience makes him uniquely qualified to lead Tennessee and how Tennessee can lead the nation."

Meanwhile, Dean said he hopes he and Lee will have "a good, substantive discussion of the issues that will highlight the significant differences between my opponent and me on education, health care, economic development, public safety and experience. Voters deserve as much of that as they can get. I'm confident that if voters know my message and see how it compares to my opponent's, they'll vote for me."

During the campaign, Lee has emphasized both his experience as the head of Lee Co., a successful Tennessee-based building and construction services firm, and his personal story. His first wife died in a tragic accident that Lee said spurred him to re-examine his own life, which led him to a stronger religious faith and interest in volunteer work.

Those experiences, Lee said, ultimately helped prompt him to run for governor.

Dean has stressed Nashville's successes under his two terms as mayor, saying they have prepared him to lead a state with a budget in the billions of dollars that functions in areas ranging from education to health care and involves thousands of employees. He is running as a pragmatic moderate in a red state.

Lee has stressed jobs, education and public safety, while Dean has put his focus on public education, health care and economic development.

They differ over public school vouchers that would allow parents to send their children to private schools, with Lee backing the concept while Dean opposes them.

Dean, meanwhile, has turned his campaign in part into a crusade to extend the state's Medicaid program for low-income pregnant women and their children, some elderly and disabled persons to an estimated 280,000 to 300,000 low-income working adults who have no health care. He says that will benefit rural hospitals. Lee rejects the argument, saying health care problems stem from a system that is too costly.

In August's fierce, four-person GOP gubernatorial primary, Lee emerged as victor after the two top candidates spent millions of dollars attacking one another before belatedly realizing it was benefiting Lee, who won by a plurality of votes.

So far, the general election contest has been a fairly staid affair, a sharp contrast from a ferocious U.S. Senate race where Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Democrat and former governor Phil Bredesen are engaged in a battle, with independent groups spending nearly $22 million in the contest.

Tuesday's gubernatorial debate is sponsored by the Kingsport Times-News and the Johnson City Press.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.