An East Tennessee face-off

Wamp has base, experience; is Haslam a Bredesen with charisma?

Bill Haslam is good-looking, personable, smart, and will have the resources behind him to become Tennessee's next governor.

Bill Haslam has skated by on his family name, benefited (by comparison) from the meltdown in county government and is too politically naïve to take on a street fighter like Congressman Zach Wamp.

These two views of Knoxville's mayor are where he stands at this time, the unofficial kickoff of the 2010 governor's race. Haslam and Wamp are the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination.

How do they stack up?

Haslam has been a big-city mayor. Gov. Phil Bredesen broke a barrier in Tennessee, becoming the first governor in state history to move to the capitol from a stint at city hall. It is a model that fits Haslam. Is Haslam a Bredesen with charisma?

Wamp comes to the race from Congress. After former Congressman Don Sundquist's tenure as governor, coming from Congress was not helpful for Republican candidate Van Hillary in 2002. Bredesen successfully argued his executive experience was better than legislative experience.

Wamp, who has served 14 years in Congress, is much more politically experienced. He got there by winning a tough primary in 1994. He has served and run in multiple counties, his original district and then several new counties since new lines were drawn after the 2000 census. He has a much bigger base of people who have voted for him than Haslam. He has represented voters from Georgia to Kentucky and from the Sequatchie Valley to Grainger County.

Haslam signed up for New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns, whose ostensible purpose is to get guns out of the hands of criminals. Who could be against that? But Bloomberg is a notorious "gun grabber" in the parlance of the NRA and gun blogs, and the association with Bloomberg is not helpful. You can expect Wamp's allies to attack Haslam over his membership in the group.

Wamp voted for the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street, the only Republican congressman from Tennessee to do so. It was hugely unpopular then and not very popular now. Even if Haslam doesn't use it as an issue in the primary, someone else will.

Wamp has assiduously courted the business community in Knoxville, through his representation of Oak Ridge, and is a fixture in Knoxville media. But a Haslam candidacy negates all his work. It is not likely the business community in Knoxville will publicly support Wamp against Haslam. It is also unlikely that many political figures in Knoxville, even those who like Wamp, will buck the Haslam family.

By the same token, Haslam and his brother Jimmy are close to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who would be an invaluable Haslam ally in his hometown of Chattanooga. A race between Haslam and Wamp leaves Corker in the uncomfortable position of opposing his hometown candidate in Wamp or his friends the Haslams. He will likely sit this one out.

I'm sure it did not escape Wamp's notice that an organizational/listening session for Haslam was held at Pilot Corp.'s headquarters this week. No one knows what gas prices will be during the heat of the primary campaign, but it could be the voters are not going to be feeling warm and fuzzy toward oil and gas vendors. And you can probably expect an ad pointing out that Knoxville had the highest gas prices in the nation at one point.

Both candidates recognize the problem of splitting the East Tennessee vote to the benefit of a Middle or West Tennessee candidate. Their best hope is that no strong Republican candidate emerges west of the plateau, (i.e. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn.) So far, the only contender seems to be Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons.

With East Tennessee split, the battle for the Republican nomination may well be decided in the heavily Republican "collar" counties in suburban Nashville.

That would be the location of Blackburn's hometown.