By Erik Schelzig (with couple of additions after watching on TV)
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — Bill Haslam’s rivals for the Republican gubernatorial nomination are taking aim at the Knoxville mayor’s conservative credentials.
At a gubernatorial forum hosted by Middle Tennessee State University on Thursday evening, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga took Haslam to task for raising property taxes after first being elected mayor.
“Mayor Haslam, conservatives don’t raise taxes before cutting spending,” Wamp said.
Haslam, the runaway fundraising leader of the campaign so far, did not directly address the attacks during the forum. (At one point, he did remark that “I think labels are dangerous.”)
But afterward he told The Associated Press that he could also question Wamp’s vote for the $700 billion bailout program in Congress or Ramsey’s 2002 vote to increase the state sales and other taxes.
“The difference is this: I’m the only person that’s had to pass and implement a budget,” Haslam said of his role as Knoxville mayor.
Ramsey returned several times during the forum to a theme of Tennessee not being able to operate like the federal government by running deficits and printing money. (He twice used his favored phrase of Tennessee being “an island of sanity” in a nation gone crazy.)
Ramsey said afterward that Wamp would “bring that Washington mentality to Tennessee,” and made light of the congressman’s campaign platform dubbed the “20/20 Vision.”
“It’s all well and good to have a vision for 2020, but we’re in 2010, and we need to have somebody who has a vision for 2011 and 2012,” he said.
Wamp said while “we all complain about the federal government,” the state has allowed regulations to become too cumbersome.
(He also got in a couple of indirect swipes at Ramsey, declaring that the area of business regulation and worker’s compensation is one “where the Legislature has made mistakes recently” by allowing “more and more bureaucratic regulations to come down from the state.”)
Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, the only Democrat in the race, likened his experience in the forum to attending a “family feud.”
McWherter praised Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s job in recovering from what he called the “fiscal mess” left by his Republican predecessor Don Sundquist. McWherter also pledged to support the pre-kindergarten program championed by Bredesen.
(McWherter also sought to contrast himself with the Republicans while rhetorically embracing Bredesen. Lead example: “He (Bredesen) found Tennessee in a fiscal mess under the Republican administration of Don Sundquist.”)