Weston Wamp did everything but call U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann a lightweight Saturday as he reacted to court documents showing the freshman congressman didn't always approve campaign ads in his successful 2010 race.
"I can't even connect with a candidate who isn't in charge of his own operation," Wamp said Saturday after a Chattanooga Tea Party debate heavy on agreement among most of the 3rd Congressional District Republican primary field. "I look at TV commercials as my opportunity to say exactly what I want to share with people on my own terms."
Meanwhile, Fleischmann said voters "aren't concerned" about depositions that appear to discredit portions of a 2010 attack ad charging that opponent and former state GOP chairwoman Robin Smith paid a top aide "lavish bonuses" at a financially difficult time for the party. He also shrugged off testimony showing that his former campaign consultant and now chief of staff, Chip Saltsman, failed to authenticate documents used in his ads.
"The people of the 3rd District overwhelmingly are concerned about jobs, the economy, the debt, the issues I've been addressing for them as an effective congressman for 18 months," Fleischmann said. "Politically motivated lawsuits are probably on the last of their wish list."
The candidates were serious, but a bit of political theater lightened the mood.
Fleischmann, Wamp and Ron Bhalla sat on stools for the debate. Dairy executive Scottie Mayfield was absent, but on a fourth stool, tea party officials placed a half-gallon Mayfield milk jug with a yellow bowtie draped over its neck.
It was the second major candidate forum Mayfield shunned. He has characterized debates as events where people "have already made up their minds" about elections.
"He could easily win, and it's a shame," Chattanooga Tea Party member and debate moderator Gregg Juster said.
A Mayfield spokesman did not return a call requesting comment.
Tea party officials allowed the debaters to submit a question to any other candidate, and Fleischmann used his to emphasize Mayfield's absence.
"Why do you think Mr. Mayfield refuses to stand up on the stage with us and talk about the issues?" Fleischmann asked Wamp.
Asked afterward why he chose that question, the congressman declined to offer an opinion on Mayfield.
"I don't know Mr. Mayfield's strategy," Fleischmann said. "Obviously, we've chosen ours and we feel we've run a great campaign, and part of that is to be a participant in these debates."
Few ideological differences emerged among the candidates as they answered various tea-flavored questions. All three oppose gay marriage, support "defunding" the United Nations and swear by their independence.
"There's no lobbyists, no Washington politicians that can touch me," Bhalla said.
But immigration appears to be a dividing line. Wamp devoted one answer to the idea that children brought to America as illegal immigrants should have "a path to legality."
"We've got to find a way, particularly at a time when we are hemorrhaging cash, can't pay the bills, to give some of these young Americans who've been educated in our public school system the opportunity to have a path back to legality," he said. "Not necessarily citizenship, but a path to legality so that we can broaden the tax base and balance the budget in our country."
Fleischmann never addressed that remark, instead describing immigration as "a national security issue." He said he was proud that his grandparents "came through legally" at Ellis Island after emigrating from Italy, England and other European locales.
"We've got to secure our borders," he said. "Playing by the rules is what America's all about."
A different set of rules -- Fleischmann having to tell the truth under oath -- was on Wamp's mind after the debate.
Surrounded by young supporters wearing khaki shorts and summer dresses, the 25-year-old son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp lit into Fleischmann over testimony that raises questions about an old attack ad.
Filed in Davidson County Circuit Court on Friday, the depositions are part of a lawsuit filed in January 2011 by Mark Winslow. He's the former Tennessee Republican Party chief of staff who later became a campaign aide to Smith, Fleischmann's top 2010 Republican primary opponent.
Fleischmann and Saltsman are defendants in the lawsuit. Both testified they relied on Winslow's confidential party personnel files for an attack ad charging that Smith paid "lavish bonuses" to Winslow at a time when the party was in debt.
But Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney testified that he was the one who paid Winslow as part of a severance agreement. Fleischmann admitted in his deposition he had no literal basis to make the "lavish bonuses" charge.
Saltsman testified that he found Winslow's personnel files on the steps of his garage. He later used the documents for campaign ads but said he never checked them for authenticity.
Fleischmann, asked if he reviewed campaign ads before they aired, testified that "I can't say I saw all of them." His ads include the federally mandated phrase, "I'm Chuck Fleischmann, and I approve this message."
"We now have proof in his own words that they weren't accurate," Wamp said. "We've got five or six weeks to go here [before the Aug. 2 primary election]. Is he going to behave the same way? Is he going to say things that are completely untrue?"
Fleischmann described the lawsuit as "frivolous," but declined further comment, citing pending legal matters.