Bill Haslam has emerged as the media darling of Tennessee politics and everyone's prohibitive favorite in the governor's race. So what if he's a little fuzzy on the issues? He's leveraged his enormous personal wealth into millions of dollars in campaign contributions, and that gives him the unmistakable air of inevitability.His first TV ad — a million-dollar buy timed to capitalize on Winter Olympics-ratings — has been hailed as historically clever even before the first poll has been taken to find out whether it's working.
What has reporters so excited are the red umbrellas that Haslam and friends carry in the ad as they do a little door-to-door campaigning for the cameras.
The umbrellas "could become the iconic symbol" of the campaign, like Lamar Alexander's lumberjack shirt and Fred Thompson's pickup truck, and this ad has "shaken the rest of the field," Tennessean columnist Gail Kerr writes. Haslam's star strategist, Tom Ingram, is cast in the column as a cross between Karl Rove and Abe Lincoln. He's the "aw-shucks" political magician beguiling voters for Haslam.
Kerr's former Tennessean colleague, Mike Morrow, writes on his blog that Haslam's fluffy bio spot is no less than "one of the most intriguing television ads in Tennessee political history."
When Haslam knocked on doors in Clarksville last week, the Leaf -Chronicle newspaper informed readers that he "tied his shoes tight" before taking off. "It was really nice and pleasant," Haslam's wife, Crissy, was quoted as saying in what may have been the article's weightiest sentence.
Everyone loves a winner. But aside from his money and his red umbrella, what makes Haslam so hot? For a front-runner, he sometimes displays a disappointing cluelessness on the issues.
Last year right after announcing his candidacy, he admitted he didn't know whether he favored amending the state constitution to strip away abortion rights — the much-ballyhooed top priority of the new Republican legislative majority.
How did he feel about changing the way Tennessee picks judges? He couldn't say.
Could he offer his views on how to bolster tax revenue to fund an adequate level of state government services? Nope.
In another show of befuddlement last summer, preserved for history on YouTube, Haslam struggled to answer simple questions about the use of state lottery proceeds and seemed not to know there are restrictions in the law about how that money may be spent.
What's worse, it may be wrong to assume that he eventually will inform himself. At a forum for the Republican candidates last week, Haslam still couldn't say how he would pay for essential state government services. Tax increases are off the table, all the candidates agreed, but revenue has cratered, so what will we do?
Haslam offered this kindergarten solution: He will do just as he's done as Knoxville's mayor, asking of each government function, "Should we be doing this in the first place? Are we doing it as effectively as possible?" Maybe this nickel-and-dime strategy saved the day in Knoxville, but pinching pennies can't fill the state government's billion-dollar revenue hole.
Haslam's saving grace is that his two most viable opponents are equally devoid of new ideas. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Congressman Zach Wamp are fighting each other for the right wing of the Republican Party. In the debate, both of them denounced climate change as a myth. Their proof? It's been a cold winter. Wamp topped that one, if that's possible, by claiming coal mining is good for the environment.
With everyone fawning over Haslam, his rivals have been forced to flail away on the sidelines, slipping in a punch or two here or there and hoping for a little newspaper story back with the tire ads on page A9.
Wamp harps on Haslam's inherited Pilot Oil wealth and his conflicts of interest from that connection. "They sell tobacco. They sell alcohol. They sell lottery tickets. And these are highly regulated things," Wamp says.
Another foe, Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons, pokes at Haslam for raising property taxes in Knoxville. At last week's debate, Gibbons said Haslam's TV ad is misleading when it claims Knoxville's property tax rate is the lowest in 50 years. Gibbons' charge didn't make much of a splash in the media. Who cares about little things like fact-checking a TV ad? We're all still marveling at those red umbrellas.