In a rapid-fire style debate at Belmont University Monday, the gubernatorial candidates mostly took shots at the man widely perceived to be the front runner.
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam had to fend off barbs from his Republican rivals — U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — as well as Democrat Mike McWherter.
The debate featured questions from across the state and in the audience at Belmont's Curb Events Center. It also featured two rounds in which the candidates could question one another. All but one of the questions in the head-to-head round were directed at Haslam, although McWherter got there in a roundabout way.
"Mayor Haslam raised property taxes in Knoxville and has refused to make a financial disclosure. … I think that's outrageous. I want to know what you think about that," McWherter asked Wamp.
The congressman, who has grown increasingly critical of Haslam as the Aug. 5 primary approaches, took the bait.
"He is the only one who chose not to turn over his tax returns. … This is a problem for Tennessee," Wamp said.
Mostly, the battle lines of Monday's debate were the same as they have been for most of the summer. Ramsey solidified his conservative credentials, frequently making pro-gun, low-tax points and referencing "Judeo-Christian values" and his own faith, while taking swipes at Wamp for voting for the second bank bailout and at Haslam for his ties to an anti-gun mayors' group started by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Wamp continued criticizing Haslam for not revealing his personal finances tied to his family's Pilot empire, but used one of his questions to ask the mayor about his work with Saks Direct, an Internet-marketing arm of the high-end fashion retailer.
"You lost $35 million at Saks Direct," Wamp said.
Haslam said the team he built at Saks has gone on to be an industry leader in Internet marketing. While his ties to high fashion were dismissed quickly, his opponents — especially Wamp — kept his disclosure failure in their teeth.
Wamp said the billionaire Haslam family is trying to buy the governor's seat and said there could be conflicts of interest that may only emerge after the election.
The mayor was dismissive.
"I think the people of Tennessee know everything they need to know … I'm proud of Pilot," he said.
Haslam promised if elected he would put his investments in a "true blind trust," distinguishing from the "Venetian blind trust" former Gov. Ned McWherter once publicly desired.
McWherter, the only man on stage who is certain to be on the general election ballot, did little to distance himself from his Republican counterparts on so called "wedge issues" like immigration. All four men criticized the federal lawsuit against the state of Arizona for its controversial immigration law, and McWherter responded to an audience question about the teaching of intelligent design in public schools by saying it should be taught alongside evolution.
"I think there's a place to talk about evolution in our public schools, but I prefer a more traditional curriculum. We can blend science and religion in that regard. The two do not have to contradict each other," he said.
McWherter did take a stance on preserving and expanding pre-K education and lowering the state's sales tax on food, citing the latter as a place where Democrats and Republicans differ.
Post-debate, predictably, all four men stayed positive about their chances. Haslam hinted during the televised portion of the program that Wamp had already filmed and was ready to release a negative ad. Wamp didn't deny it, though he took issue with the term.
"I wouldn't call it a negative ad, but we can't let a lot of these claims go, quite frankly. … He's not what he says he is on guns, on taxes and on immigration," Wamp said.