On Monday, day one of a fairly extensive two-day excursion to Shelby County, and one of several he's already made here, Republican gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp of Chattanooga made it clear he intends to campaign in all corners of Tennessee. Wamp, the congressman from the state's 3rd District, spoke respectfully of all three of his declared Republican primary opponents, including District Attorney Bill Gibbons of Memphis but described himself as the man to beat.
After one of his early stops, a largely nonpolitical luncheon address to the Memphis Multi-Modal Conference at the Peabody, the congressman was asked: Did he regard Shelby County as a battleground? The congressman's answer was instructive:
"Maybe not as much a battleground as Middle Tennessee, because General Gibbons is a candidate for governor, but there are friends of mine here, and I'm meeting more and more people. And if you come to the event tonight, you'll see that there are more and more people coming into the fold. So I am making direct fund-raising calls while I'm here today, but I'm not having a specific [fund-raising] event.
"Tonight's event is kind of a meet-and-greet Dutch treat," he continued. "I am planning a little later to have an event here, but we're layng the groundwork for that right now. I'm making real good progress in this county. It is the most important county in terms of voters, as you know."
Later, at the Monday night event at the Fino Villa restaurant in Collierville, speaking to a roomful of seemingly tuned-in diners, Wamp returned to the subject:
"Because I'm not from here, I'm going to spend a whole lot more time here. Anybody who says 'I know West Tennessee because my wife is from there' or something [a dig at Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, who is married to a native Memphian] ... Listen, here's the truth: You've got to go and elbow grease, time, commitment, be here! That's what you've got to do. And I say this with great respect. There's not a place in the country with greater tradition, with more assets. You're the transportation hub in the middle part of our country. You've got the river, the rail, the roads, the air.
"You've got this unbelievable history and heritage, but you need political leadership. I am a student of Tennessee history, the days of Crump and McKellar, fast-forwarded to now ... You need leadership, and it doesn't have to be somebody from here. You just need leadership."
On hand for the Fino Villa event were several influential local Republicans — among them Beale Street entrepreneur John Elkington, activist/candidates Terry Roland and Mark White, Shelby County School Board member Diane George, and law enforcement/voting maven John Harvey. Elkington and White were just shopping, but the others are already on board with Wamp, the 18-year congressional veteran and former commercial real-estate broker who describes himself, none too modestly, as a "heat-seeking missile."
In the jargon of sports, Wamp is the kind of candidate who looks different on the playing field than he does on paper. A dispassionate analysis of his voting record and stated positions would depict him as a hard-headed, even zealous conservative of the Newt Gingrich mold.
As Wamp boasted Monday night, he owns a "100 percent record of support" for the conservative positions on "life, marriage, taxes, guns, and immigration." Add to that a fervent espousal of "state sovereignty" and home schooling, and the case can be made, as Wamp suggested, that he owns "Ed Bryant's record with a whole lot more giddy-up."
That reference to the former congressman from West Tennessee's 7th District was pointed. Wamp had been asked how he could avoid the fate suffered by arch-conservatives Bryant and Van Hilleary in their losing 2006 GOP U.S. Senate primary races against the ultra-rich and relatively moderate Bob Corker.
Wamp's answer was simple. Having already established, with the "giddy-up" remark, that he was no Ed Bryant, he suggested that Haslam, the well-heeled Pilot Oil scion who is regarded as the favorite in the Republican race, was no Bob Corker, who, Wamp pointed out, was a "self-made man," someone more in the mold of himself, "a middle-class entrepreneurial representative."
As Wamp carefully described the Republican field as consisting of "four good men" (Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, in addition to Haslam, Gibbons, and himself), he made no secret of his distinguishing ace in the hole: public speaking. "That's where I might have the advantage," he said, with an affected modesty that drew chuckles from his Monday-night listeners.
And, indeed, that's where the paper analysis breaks down. In person, Wamp is something of a dynamo, with an urgent pulpit style and a palpable to-whom-it-may-concern energy that many audiences, certainly Republican ones but maybe some middle-of-the-road ones as well, might find hard to resist. Privately, Wamp compares himself to two former stemwinders among Tennessee politicians: the late former 7th District congressman Robin Beard, a Republican, and legendary former Governor Frank Clement, a Democrat famous for his oratory.
Heat-seeking, indeed. By no means are all of Wamp's rhetorical thrusts directed at Democrats or even liberals. In fact, aside from his original statement of faith, the bill of particulars he laid out focused virtually not at all on the tenets of social conservatism. Mainly, he talked up economic expansion and, unlike many conservatives, he carefully left himself wiggle room on the revenue front, vowing to hold the line on taxes but hedging his criticism of such right-wing bugbears as the estate tax ("death tax," in the Republican lexicon) and the Hall income tax on investment income, promising only to "review" those revenue sources.
He made it clear that no Bush-style tax cuts would be in the offing, not with the state in its present tenuous economic shape.
And, though he took ritual jabs at the positions of Governor Bredesen and President Obama, his haymakers went elsewhere — at the likes of former U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay, whom he seemed to blame for an era of Republican corruption and power lust in Congress, and at "Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, and big oil" among sundry other "special interests" that had held the Republican Party in bondage.
Even more unusual for a contemporary conservative politician, Wamp had a surprising add-on to his list of "cornerstones." He began with "family, church, and the free enterprise system," all expected items on the GOP bromide list. "And what's the fourth cornerstone? The government," he said, repeating for the sake of emphasis, "the government."
In short, there's a populist lurking inside Wamp and seemingly hankering to get out. He's certainly no liberal, nor even a moderate. But he has his own way of reaching out beyond the narrow confines of his voting record and even his party label. As he pointed out several times on Monday, at the national level in 2008 "the people threw us out," and Republicans got some 'splaining to do.
Tennessee is a different matter, of course. There's a GOP tide in the state that Wamp expects to serve his purposes, if he somehow gets beyond the primary and into the general.
As far as Shelby County is concerned, Wamp pledged to return again and again. As he noted, there were 65,000 Shelby County Republican primary votes in the last statewide race. "It's number one in our primary," he said.
The locally popular Gibbons can legitimately lay claim to being Shelby County's favorite son in the 2010 Republican race for governor. But he can't take his citadel for granted. Haslam already has been the beneficiary of a big-ticket fund-raising event here. And we have Wamp's word for it that he and his ground game will also be very much a presence. Should be interesting.