Tonight is the final gubernatorial debate not only before early voting begins on Friday, but also before the August 5 primary election. It begins at 7 p.m. and will be aired on WSMV Channel 4.
What that means is viewers can expect a more spirited debate and more pointed attacks between opposing candidates as each tries to separate himself from the field.
Late last week, WSMV released a poll that showed Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam leading the race on the Republican side of the primary with 32 percent support, Chattanooga Congressman Zach Wamp with 21 percent, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey with 11 percent, and undecided voters making up 36% of the survey.
Democrat Mike McWherter of Jackson, who will also be participating in the debate, is shown as being behind all of the Republicans in head-to-head contests.
The order of where each man stands in the race is most certainly correct, but the margins and number of undecided voters are highly suspect.
For a variety of reasons, typical polling procedures done by campaigns are more accurate than those done by the mainstream media.
In this poll, all voters were lumped in together and not separated out by voting frequency and whether they are likely GOP or Democratic voters. To do that costs a bit more and provides a more accurate poll. Since careers are on the line, campaigns will spend the money while media outlets won't.
Without separating out likely voters and which primary those people will vote in, you have a flawed poll that can only give you the order that horses are in, not how many furlongs separate them. Frankly the margins could be greater, not closer.
Given the margins put out by WSMV though, here is what you can expect from each candidate participating in tonight’s debate.
Expect him to play defense. His goal will not to be trapped by his opponents into making any major verbal miscues. He doesn't need to hit a home run tonight, just solid singles and doubles. When his opponents try to hit him in the face, he will attempt to deflect but has no real reason to try to shove it back down their throat.
Expect aggressive offense. Wamp has the most to lose and will likely attempt to land haymakers every chance he gets. Of all the candidates in this race, he is the only one out of a job if he loses and therefore has more on the line. The major problem that Wamp will have tonight is getting that one hit in that can't be recovered from, à la Lloyd Bentsen's "You're no Jack Kennedy" remark to Dan Quayle in the 1988 Vice Presidential debate. Another danger is that sometimes when you try to hit your opponent, you hit yourself, something all candidates are capable of.
Whereas Wamp has everything to lose, Ramsey has nothing to lose. If he does not prevail in August, he will still be Lt. Governor come next year — unless the Dems retake the State Senate or the GOP caucus abandons him as speaker, and either of those outcomes would represent a reversal of biblical proportions. Ramsey will want to distinguish himself from Haslam tonight and will take shots at him, but will also take some swings at Wamp. The disdain the two men have for each other seems to be growing greater as the primary comes to an end, and Ramsey is not above using his famous boot to keep down Wamp if he doesn't have a chance to give the Federal government "the boot."
The only Democrat in the debate tonight will sound an awful lot like a Republican on issues of health care and immigration. What he needs to do though is remind his Democratic base why he is a Democrat in order to bring life to a campaign largely ignored during an uneventful primary on his side of the aisle. McWherter is guaranteed to still be standing after August; tonight he needs to show Democrats why they should stand with him.