Zach Wamp is kicking ass.
When the campaign for the Republican gubernatorial primary began, it was all about Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam’s fund-raising. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey presided over session and then banked some impressive totals before the July 1 reporting deadline.
But in recent weeks it has been all Wamp. He is inspiring crowds, whipping up the base, and glad-handing from Mountain City to Memphis. He is doing what he does best.
Ramsey, whose strength is his knowledge of state government, has been talking about President Obama’s health-care plan and sharing his worries about the country and pondering whether God wants him to win or not. Haslam has been giving embarrassing interviews in which he is unable to give a simple yes or no answer to simple questions. He ought to take a position on something, even if it’s wrong.
Wamp, the 15-year veteran of Congress, who has bragged for years about all the pork he has brought to places like Oak Ridge, is the rabble-rousing outsider standing tall against the federal government. He vows to meet the feds at the state line in the event they resurrect Sherman and send him South to collect our guns and drop off some more stimulus checks.
The Democrats have compared Wamp to George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor, who vowed to stand in the school house door to prevent black children attending school with white children. It is in many ways a cheap shot. There are legitimate concerns about the growth of the federal government and the waning of state power. It is not racist to raise questions about whether it is a good thing for the federal government to take over banking, the car industry, and health care.
But comparisons to Wallace are not totally off the mark.
I covered Wallace as a young reporter. In my decades of covering politics, Wamp is the closest thing I have seen to having Wallace’s political skills. The ability to whip up a crowd and generate enthusiasm. Intensity.
Wallace used to say he would put the hay down where the goats can get it. Wamp has the ability to put the hay down where the goats “get it.” He isn’t boring. He has an ability to communicate directly with voters. Which will fired-up Republicans remember longer? Ramsey saying “the 10th Amendment is the 10th Amendment.” (Undoubtedly it is.) Or the image of Wamp standing at the rest stop on I-81 facing down Sherman, er, I mean President Obama, when he comes calling?
You should know that I am no fan or partisan for Wamp. I find his fervid religiosity a disturbing aspect of our current politics. I think he also shares with Wallace the cynicism that allows him to say anything he thinks the voters want to hear. But, like Wallace, he knows what the voters want to hear.
On a recent Saturday, Wamp attended a University of Tennessee football game at Neyland Stadium. He then hit the road to Shelbyville for the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration. He worked the civic club hamburger stands, he sat in an owners box and heard their concerns about the industry and its battles with federal inspectors, he was introduced to the crowd on the PA system. He presented the awards after the first heat. In other words, he maximized the opportunity and shamelessly promoted himself and got before thousands of people. Then he hit the road to Memphis.
Haslam is also campaigning hard. He is everywhere he needs to be, from Mule Day to the Celebration. But he seems to lack the shamelessness necessary for self-promotion. He gets there and he checks off the box. But that isn’t the purpose of the exercise. He has yet to display any passion on issues and his insistence on explaining all sides to every question is not the same as an answer.
A key component in any political campaign is which candidate wants it the most. If Ramsey loses he goes back to being lieutenant governor. Haslam goes back to a pretty nice life. Wamp goes into former-congressman hell.
Wamp is motivated. Are Haslam and Ramsey?