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NASHVILLE — While most of Tennessee's major gubernatorial candidates participated in this week's first televised forum on education, one of the Republican primary's frontrunners in terms of name recognition, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, skipped the Belmont University event.

Instead, Black attended a $250-per-person campaign fundraiser held for her in an office building located less than five miles away.

It was the second straight forum in a row that Black, of Gallatin, missed. Before the hour-long event, the forum moderator announced Black wouldn't be there because of an unspecified scheduling conflict.

Some Republican and Democratic candidates were critical.

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Tennessee 6th District Congressman Diane Black speaks at the event. The Electric Power Board of Chattanooga unveiled its new 100 kilowatt, 4-hour, vanadium redox flow battery made by UniEnergy Technologies of Mukilteo, Washington on September 22, 2017.
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Gubernatorial candidates Republican Beth Harwell, Democrat Craig Fitzhugh, Democrat Karl Dean, Republican Bill Lee and Republican Randy Boyd answer questions from moderators David Plazas and Rory Johnston during the Gubernatorial Forum on Education at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. (George Walker IV / The Tennessean via AP, Pool)
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Black's campaign spokesman, Chris Hartline, said in an email that "we have dozens of invites for joint events all across the state and we will have scheduling conflicts from time to time, as will our opponents."

The candidate, Hartline added, has participated in "many joint events," including at the March for Life in Knoxville last Sunday, "but we can't participate in all of them. There will be plenty of debates during the course of this campaign and the voters will have the opportunity to hear about Diane Black's strong conservative record."

He did not address whether Black would participate in next week's forum sponsored by the Tennessee Press Association at the group's annual winter meeting in Nashville. Invitations to the forum are extended to both Republican and Democratic candidates, as was the case for the Belmont University event.

Also not attending Tuesday's forum was former state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, who sent her regrets noting her mother had died days earlier and the funeral had occurred earlier in the day.

Beavers said Wednesday she certainly would have attended otherwise and voiced surprise Black chose to go to the fundraiser, sponsored by a number of Nashville-area business owners and others.

"I would think she's gone about this wrong," Beavers said. "As if she needed a fundraiser."

A multi-millionaire, Black is the former chairwoman of the U.S. House Budget Committee. She garnered national attention as she and fellow Republicans pushed through President Trump's tax overhaul. Her Middle Tennessee district includes much of the Nashville media market.

In December, a Vanderbilt University poll found 59 percent of registered voters recognized Black's name, a 10-percentage-points increase from the last survey in May. It was the highest name recognition among five Republican and two Democratic candidates, although some candidates' name recognition percentages were in the 40s.

Wednesday's forum was spearheaded by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), an education advocacy group founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.

Three Republicans — Knoxville businessman and former state economic development commissioner Randy Boyd, House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Franklin businessman Bill Lee — participated as did two Democrats, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley.

Asked by reporters Tuesday night about Black's absence, Boyd said, "I think you'd have to ask Diane Black why she didn't show up. But for me, having a room full of 1,500 people that are committed to education and getting to share ideas with them was a great opportunity."

Lee's campaign had no comment about Black's absence.

Harwell said Wednesday in an interview that "I just know that our campaign is focused on being in this state and being focused on state issues every day."

Fitzhugh was more pointed: "You got to get your priorities straight. I've said this ought to be an election, not an auction."

Dean said in a statement that "for me this was one of the most important events thus far in the campaign because the focus was on public education, my highest priority."

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

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