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Staff File Photo By Matt Hamilton / A camera is adjusted as Hamilton County mayoral candidates, from left, Matt Hullander, Sabrena Smedley and Weston Wamp, stand behind their podiums before the start of a February primary debate.

With early voting for the May county primary set to begin on Wednesday, it's been interesting to watch the tenor of the first ever competitive Republican race for Hamilton County mayor change.

Entrepreneur Weston Wamp was the first to jump in the race in October and brought with him the experience and name recognition of two previous primary campaigns for the 3rd District U.S. House seat.

Nearly three weeks later, former remodeling company owner Matt Hullander offered his candidacy and several weeks later boasted that his campaign already had raised $100,000.

The race at the time was seen to be between two political scions, Wamp, the son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, and Hullander, the son of longtime former Hamilton County Commission and current Trustee Bill Hullander.

Nearly a month after Hullander's announcement, two-term Hamilton County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley joined the race but was a distant fourth — behind, in order, Undecided, Hullander and Wamp — in a January poll done by Spry Strategies for conservative local think tank Hamilton Flourishing.

Although no recent public polls have been taken, the three candidates almost assuredly are doing their own private polling and are probably finding the race tightening.

In recent days, though, Hullander has taken the poor-mouthing route and claimed he doesn't speak as well as Wamp and Smedley. Meanwhile, Wamp in recent days has cast himself as the outsider in the race, pointing to a Hamilton County Courthouse connection for Hullander through his father's status and Smedley through her eight-year county commission tenure. And Smedley, in a paid advertising spot that began running weeks ago, referred to Hullander and Wamp as the "good ole boys" in the race.

It was with those developments that the three went into Thursday's night's 30-minute debate hosted by WTVC-TV.

Most of the questions in the WTVC forum were general in scope — about the mayor's role in job creation, how to manage the county's growth and the county schools' most critical need — so candidates had a chance to play to what they believe are their strengths.

Hullander, for instance, focused on his ability to build relationships, on the importance of making a plan, sticking to it and seeing it through, and on being a "CEO" for the county. Wamp steered most every question to education, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the county's budget, and asserted if we don't get that right, little else will improve. Smedley touted her leadership and experience on the commission and on the importance of a mayor having both experience in government and in small business.

We wonder if Hullander, perhaps to sustain a lead he says his campaign has, has felt the need to double down on his current conservative bona fides lately.

One of his recent television ads — in a county won easily by Republican Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 — opened with video of progressive national figures and issues and intimated that he would be a local conservative alternate. In Thursday's debate, he name-checked President Joe Biden in oddly comparing the president with the conservative Smedley.

"Look, we're all three great candidates," he said. "I don't have Weston's political experience. This is his third campaign. I don't have Sabrena's experience in government. She's been there eight years. Joe Biden's also got a lot of experience."

Similarly, Hullander, perhaps in another play to conservatives, declared, in an answer to a question about whether taxes might be raised to support schools: "Absolutely not. I will never raise taxes."

Should he be elected, it's a promise that could come back to haunt him.

Hullander also sounded a bit defensive — and perhaps not so charitable — in trying to explain his family's charitable foundation, which he says was begun to give contributed dollars back to the community. However an investigative report by this newspaper showed the foundation hadn't given back as much money as he alleged. So Hullander was asked by WTVC host Josh Roe why he said he'd "show you where every penny went" and later said he wouldn't.

He answered that he didn't mind telling where the money went but then said, "I have been, this past week, since the [Times] Free Press ran that article got hit up for money about 15 times, so I don't want to solicit [requests]. And my wife and I have written three checks this week."

In the same "Clear the Record" segment, Roe asked Smedley about her flip-flop on discretionary funds and Wamp about his use of the words "thugs" and "gangbangers" in a social media post about an assault on a friend that proved to be untrue.

Smedley told how she sought to use the funds to replace portable toilets with a permanent restroom for the East Hamilton High football stadium but ran out of time before explaining why she now opposed the funds. Wamp said he was lied to about the incident, ultimately said his "choice of words was probably not the best" and said it wasn't his "finest moment."

We wish there were more opportunities for the candidates to be together on the same stage because it often reveals their grasp of the issues and their ability to think on their feet. We hope Monday's Times Free Press/WRCB debate, to be aired live from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., will be even more enlightening.

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