The first joint meeting of Republican U.S. Senate candidates is in the can, after Tuesday night’s forum at Mid-America Seminary in Germantown. Considering that the event virtually had to compete with President Bush’s State of the Union address, which immediately followed it, the turnout was considerable.

What attendees got from the three candidates on hand – former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary and political newcomer Jeff Moder – was less a debate than a brief sampling of each candidate’s persona and positions. What they didn’t get was Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, the acknowledged moderate in a race that otherwise is wall-to-wall conservative.

Corker was in Washington – as a press release of his put it, attending the State of the Union; as his opponents put it, avoiding Tuesday night’s debate and soliciting more money to fill out his already top-heavy war chest.

Corker’s absence drew fire from all three participating candidates at the forum – with Hilleary offering sarcastic congratulations to Moder and Bryant for “showing up,” while Bryant chided the absent Corker for his fund-raising activities in D.C. and challenged him to start appearing in joint formats. (One such, involving not only Corker but Democrats Harold Ford Jr. and Rosalind Kurita, is scheduled for Nashville next week.) Even the event moderator, Jonathan Lindbergh of the conservative publication Main Street Journal, made a point of asking the audience to note “who felt it important to be here and who did not.”

On the money score, relative unknown Moder, whose fundraising is so far negligible, jested that Corker “has more money than me.” What the Chattanooga mayor has, according to the latest financial disclosure reports, is some $4.74 million, well above the amount on hand for any other candidate. By comparison, Bryant has raised $1,416,000 and Hilleary $1.407,000.

Though both Bryant and Hilleary acknowledge privately that the presence of the other in the race is a threat to split the conservative vote and maximize Corker’s chances, each said Tuesday night that he could win even if the field stayed exactly as it is. “There’s more than adequate vote out there for a conservative to win,” said Bryant, who vowed he would never drop out and said he enjoyed the “energy and excitement” of a multi-candidate race. Similarly, Hilleary said there was “enough conservative vote to go around.” Both Hilleary and Bryant cited the importance of nominating someone with enough appeal to counter potential Democratic nominee Ford

An intriguing feature of the forum – and a possible measure of the changed political climate -- was that each of the three Republicans on hand found it necessary to put some distance between himself and his party. Answering a question about social/moral issues, Hilleary said voters motivated by those concerns might have experienced “a bait-and-switch” in Washington after the presidential election of 2004. “I don’t recognize some of the Republican Party I see in Washington right now,” he said. Bryant, who, like Corker, made an issue of curtailing illegal immigration, said, “I think we have Republicans in Washington who would like, down the road, to see amnesty as a program,” and deplored the “message” that would send. Moder said there was a Republican majority in both houses of Congress but not a “conservative majority. He said he represented a “grass roots movement” to do something about that. All three candidates made statements deploring the current Abramoff scandal.

On specific issues, the three candidates found themselves in general agreement – all espousing right-to-life opinions on abortion and a desire to roll back Roe v. Wade; all expressing general approval of President Bush’s recently publicized domestic wiretapping activities, which they perceived as operating in the clear interests of national security (“listening to Ahmed talking to Mohanmmed,” as Hilleary put it), and all supporting the president’s wish to revive the debate on private accounts for Social Security. (Hilleary did acknowledge, however, that there was “no immediate crisis” and that the proposal might be “an idea whose time has not yet come.”)

Both Bryant and Hilleary, when asked about the lobbying activities each undertook after leaving the House to make unsuccessful statewide races in 2002, said they had observed all proprieties in doing so and had, in any case, ceased to function as lobbyists. As is his custom, Bryant made much of his desire to join the Senate Judiciary Committee so as to counter potential judicial attacks on “our 2nd Amendment rights” and other liberties. Hilleary, like the others, criticized porkbarrel spending but declined to condemn all budget “earmarks,” noting ongoing efforts to shore up Tennessee’s National Guard component in Congress.

On the whole, the debate results amounted to a case of All Have Won and All Must Have Prizes. Bryant, a native West Tennessean who seemed to have more supporters on hand, maintained the serious but easy-going demeanor that is his trademark; Hilleary, who has a greater reputation for oratorical skill, generated somewhat more applause at key points of his responses; and Moder, the previous unknown, seemed to make a favorable impression on the crowd with his sometimes self-deprecating quips.

For that matter, even Corker, despite the attacks on his absence, probably saw little change in his overall status – though there was much speculation by audience members later on as to how the Chattanoogan might do in future common appearances with Bryant and Hilleary.

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