What Can Wamp Do to Catch the Front-Running Haslam?

Can Zach catch him?

When the race for governor started, most observers considered Bill Haslam the front runner, given his early fund-raising and his almost unlimited access to cash. He got on the air early, spent a ton of money, got the name recognition statewide that a mayor from Knoxville needed.

Every poll I've seen has had him ahead in the race all the way. If you have any doubt that Haslam is the perceived leader in the race, notice that the candidate-to-candidate questions in the Monday night debate were mostly aimed at Haslam. And they were not polite.

The question now, as early voting in the Republican primary starts, is can Zach Wamp catch up?

Here is what needs to happen for Wamp and what the Haslam campaign needs to avoid.

It would be better for Wamp if Ron Ramsey were to drop out and leave it a head-to-head competition with Haslam. That would give Wamp a lot of the movement conservatives and gun owners who are not natural Haslam supporters.

On Tuesday, Ramsey reported that he had raised only $278,257 in campaign funds during the second quarter. He continues to trail in the polls. The supposed cash the Senate speaker can call on from special interests has not materialized in enough quantity to match Haslam and Wamp. Ramsey was blocked from fund-raising for the first five months of this year, a time when Haslam was pouring on television advertising.

Ramsey came out of the legislative session in a hole and has been unable to climb out—either in momentum or in fund-raising. He is even further behind in West Tennessee, where Wamp and Haslam put together organizations while Ramsey was stuck in Nashville.

What's up with a group recently formed to use independent expenditures to help Ramsey? If this group's aim is to go negative on Haslam, staying at arm's length from Ramsey to give him deniability, it is likely to fail. But if they drive up Haslam's negatives it could help Wamp.

Shelby County will likely be the battleground. The Memphis business community is mostly in Haslam's corner. But Wamp's politics are close to the large number of movement conservatives in the Memphis suburbs. Wamp needs a big vote in Shelby County.

The big unknown in the election polling is how many of those polled will vote in the Republican primary. Will the actual voters in the primary be more conservative and will this help Wamp close the gap? There are also a lot of undecided voters in the polls, and they need to break toward Wamp. But with no race in the Democratic primary there will be a lot of crossover voting to the Republican primary.

From the Haslam campaign's standpoint, they are in a good position: Don't make any major gaffes, ride the lead. Hope Ramsey stays in the race. Keep pouring on the advertising and spend what it takes. Use the polling results to generate more fund-raising and create momentum.

How big a factor will the Tea Party movement be? How organized? Will their endorsements help?The resolution to support Arizona's immigration law, the legislative debate about defying President Obama's health care plan, the general anger about the deficits and bailouts: These issues have generated a lot of heat and Gov. Phil Bredesen told The New York Times it has Democrats on the defensive. But how does it play in the Republican primary?

If it were a major factor, you would think it would favor Ramsey. He was leading the state senate during these debates. Wamp serves in Congress. Haslam is perceived to be the more moderate of the three candidates.

So if these issues were crucial you would think you would see more momentum for Ramsey. But I don't see it.

The debate was interesting and we will see what kind of ads Wamp puts up between now and Aug. 5. But for now, Haslam is sitting on a lead. Wamp needs a Hail Mary.