Democrat Mike McWherter says a burst of television advertising that will start before early voting should boost his so-far underdog effort against Republican gubernatorial rival Bill Haslam.
But some say it will be tough for McWherter at this point to take down the well-funded Haslam, who since the Aug. 5 primary has largely reigned supreme in television and radio advertising.
McWherter said last week that will change before early voting begins a week from Wednesday.
"We have prepared for that and we want to make sure that we're getting our message out before early voting starts," McWherter said.
Haslam has a "gazillion dollars," McWherter said. "We can't match him dollar for dollar so we are targeting our resources."
He said voters are only now focusing on the governor's race.
Haslam led McWherter, 55 percent to 24 percent in the latest poll, conducted last month by Nashville television station WSMV-TV's market-research firm, Crawford Johnson & Northcott.
The poll of 600 registered voters said 19 percent were undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
"We're comfortable where we are, and we wouldn't trade places with anybody," Haslam spokesman David Smith said.
An Aug. 9 survey by independent pollster Rasmussen Reports of likely voters found Haslam with 56 percent support and McWherter with 31 percent. Ten percent were undecided.
McWherter expressed surprise over the polls.
"I think Bill Haslam has spent somewhere north of $12 million [over course of the campaign]. It's amazing to me that having spent so much money there is still such a large amount of undecided vote out there as there is," he said.
* Today: Last day to register to vote in November election
* Oct. 13-28: Early voting
* Nov. 2: Election Day
Source: Tennessee Division of Elections
"Apparently, there is a push-back to Bill Haslam, to his wealth and the finances he is not disclosing. As we get our message out there talking about job creation and talking about education I think we will present a very clear alternative."
Haslam's race to lose
Some independent experts say McWherter has a tough row to hoe in order to win.
The Rothenberg Report, a Washington-based, nonpartisan newsletter that follows federal and gubernatorial races, rates the Tennessee contest as "currently safe Republican."
"I think the only person who can defeat Haslam right now is Haslam," said Rothenberg political editor Nathan L. Gonzales. "I don't think there's anything McWherter can do to change the dynamic of the race."
Gonzales said it is a "very difficult year" for Democrats nationally. In a Republican-leaning state such as Tennessee, "Haslam is in a good position to take advantage of a good opportunity," he said.
Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said Republicans enjoy about a 10 percent advantage in statewide contests.
"There's little out there to convince me at this time that Mcwherter has done things to change the calculus," Oppenheimer said. "He needs to do something to shift the fundamentals of the race, and if he can't do that that, it's all over. In your [news media] lingo, he's got to do something to shake things up."
Aiming for a rebound
McWherter declined to say what he will spend to turn things around.
"We have several fundraisers set up in the month of October so I really don't know," he said. "I've committed funds to this race, and I will commit whatever funds are necessary personally to win this race."
The Jackson, Tenn., beer distributor and son of former Gov. Ned McWherter has already put at least $1 million into this campaign. He had raised about $1.6 million as of July 26, according to his campaign disclosures.
Haslam has put in at least $1.5 million and had raised another $9.4 million, according to his disclosures. Haslam's family-owned Pilot Corp. owns a majority share of Pilot Travel Centers LLC, the nation's largest chain of truck stops.
McWherter has released his federal income tax returns and has repeatedly attacked Haslam for refusing to do so. Haslam also won't say what his share of Pilot is or how much income he makes from a company that had $16 billion in revenues during 2008.
The two are set to square off Thursday in Knoxville for the second of three televised debates.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said that as early voting approaches, "Mike will be up with an ample amount of paid advertising to communicate this message."
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said McWherter has had trouble "from the get-go" raising money and getting grass-roots support. He said Haslam "not only has strong appeal among Republicans but with conservative Democrats and independents across the state."