:Chattanooga; :Aug 14, 2008; :Front Page; :1

Wamp extends reach outside district

By Andy Sher and Dave Flessner Staff Writers

Online: Hear U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp talk about possibly running for governor. Comment on this story. Sixty

     miles outside Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District, a billboard dominated by the grinning face of the district’s incumbent, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., went up last week.

    Located along Interstate 24 near the Manchester exit, the sign, which sits squarely in the state’s 4th Congressional District, says: “Zach Wamp. Strong leadership for Tennessee.”

    The sign does not mention the Chattanooga lawmaker’s 2008 bid for an eighth two-year congressional term. In fact, it doesn’t say anything about any particular political office at all.

    And that may speak volumes about the 50-year-old congressman’s future ambitions, observers say.

    Rep. Wamp, who has at least one similar sign along Interstate 81 in the state’s 1st Congressional District, makes no secret of the fact that he is “extremely interested” in running for governor in 2010 when Gov. Phil Bredesen’s term ends. He said he is likely to run if former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill
Frist, R-Tenn., does not mount a bid.

    “I think I am the best person to serve our state in our state if Sen. Frist decides not to run,” Rep. Wamp said Wednesday. “It is a difficult decision, but one where my family thinks I should follow my heart, which is to run.”

    If former Sen. Frist does not enter the contest, Rep. Wamp said, he expects to enter the gubernatorial race by next February.

    With better statewide name identification and a national network of more than 300,000 donors, Dr. Frist “has a tremendous amount of political capital in our state,” Rep. Wamp acknowledged.

    “It was a practical decision to say to him, ‘If you run, I support you,’” Rep. Wamp said.

    That’s probably a wise decision, said Republican National Committee member John Ryder of Memphis, a veteran observer of the state’s political scene.

    “I think everybody’s waiting for Bill Frist,” Mr. Ryder said. “If Bill Frist says he’s running, I think that clears the field. If Bill Frist, on the other hand, says he’s not running, then I think you’re going to have a lot of candidates and Congressman Wamp would be one, and he would be a formidable candidate.”

    On the downside, Mr. Ryder and other Republicans said, the Chattanooga lawmaker, who sits on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, is not really well known outside the 3rd Congressional District, which includes all or parts of 11 counties and stretches from Hamilton County on the Georgia border to Claiborne County north of Knoxville.

    State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said Rep. Wamp is eager to run for governor, but he said the Chattanooga Republican needs to get around the state more to build his name recognition.

    “I knew that he had been like a horse trying to get out of the barn,” Sen. Ketron said. “He’s been lathering to jump in the race, and I guess he got tired of somebody else waiting to make a commitment.”

    Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer agreed, noting that one big problem facing Rep. Wamp is achieving statewide name recognition.

    “And in this state, that’s very expensive to do,” Dr. Oppenheimer said.

    During an appearance in Chattanooga Wednesday, Rep. Wamp said that, as governor, he could bring to Tennessee what he has helped promote in Congress since 1995. In the Tennessee Valley Technology Corridor, which Rep. Wamp helped create, nearly 10,000 military-related jobs are coming to Huntsville, Ala., on the south end of the corridor and technology start-up businesses rapidly are being formed in Oak Ridge on the north end.

    In between, Chattanooga landed the $1 billion Volkswagen assembly plant in July.

    “East Tennessee is hot as a match right now, and I’d like to take that same leadership to Middle and West Tennessee,” Rep. Wamp said.

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Age: 50

    Job: U.S. Congressman for Tennessee’s 3rd congressional district since 1994

    Political career: Began as precinct vice chairman in the 1983 Chattanooga mayoral campaign of Gene Roberts. Later elected chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, then regional director for the state GOP. Was narrowly defeated in his first bid for Congress in 1992 by then-U.S. Rep. Marilyn Lloyd.

Staff Photo by Meghan Brown Traffic travels east near downtown Chattanooga on Interstate 24 past a billboard for U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who represents the state’s 3rd District.

Zach Wamp