- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Saturday launched a re-election bid that bears little resemblance to the often contentious campaign of four years ago.

Haslam hosted a gathering at Nashville’s Loveless Cafe to celebrate the kick-off of election season. He faces little serious competition in the primary, and will likely have a vast fundraising and name-recognition advantage over the Democratic nominee in the general.

“When we started five years ago, many of you jumped in to help us, and we weren’t a sure bet at all,” Haslam told supporters. “You knocked on doors with us all across the state and we couldn’t be more grateful.”

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Haslam touted improving student test scores, corporate recruitment and passing balanced budgets, and said the next four years would represent a continuation of those themes. The governor declined to elaborate on specific policy initiatives he plans to introduce in a second term, saying “there will be a time to announce those.”

The governor ruled out a state income tax or any increase in the state’s sales tax, but declined to say whether a gas tax increase could be necessary to help fund the state’s road program. “It’s just way early to say on any of those things,” he said.

Four years ago, Haslam battled state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, Memphis prosecutor Bill Gibbons and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp for the Republican nomination.

Gibbons, who had been a sharp critic of Haslam’s refusal to divulge his earnings from the family-owned Pilot Flying J truck stop chain, dropped out of the race early on and now serves in Haslam’s cabinet as commissioner of safety.

That left a three-way race that featured mounting criticism of Haslam by Ramsey and Wamp.

Wamp aired television ads targeting Haslam as a “billionaire oil man,” and claimed Haslam would welcome the introduction of a state income tax. Ramsey hammered away at Haslam for what he called his suspect support for Second Amendment rights.

But in the end, Haslam far outraised his rivals and ended up pouring $4.25 million of his own money into the race to seal the deal.

Haslam has all the money he wants, so we’re fighting a machine gun with a Derringer,” Ramsey complained at the time. “So we’re going to have two shots, they better be up close.”

But it wasn’t to be. Haslam ended up winning 47 percent of the vote in the spirited GOP primary, compared with Wamp’s 29 percent and Ramsey’s 22 percent. Haslam then went on to crush Democrat Mike McWherter, the son of a former governor, in the general election.

Despite the soaring election results, Haslam found dealing with the Legislature to be less of a slam dunk despite the universal Republican control at the Capitol. Lawmakers have advanced some measures the governor opposed, and watered down parts of Haslam’s legislative priorities.

Haslam has downplayed the differences with the General Assembly as part of the normal give-and-take between the executive and legislative branches, and stressed that he is more interested in enacting key laws than he is in passing them in the form they were originally introduced.

A recent Vanderbilt University poll found that Haslam enjoys a 58 percent approval rating, apparently unaffected by the fraud investigation into family-owned Pilot.

Federal agents last year raided the Knoxville headquarters of the nation’s largest diesel retailer that Haslam was the president of before running for Knoxville mayor in 2003.

Ten former employees have pleaded guilty to helping cheat trucking companies out of promised rebates and discounts, and several top executives either resigned or were fired. Several top executives, including the president, also have left or been fired in recent weeks.

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