Two months before the Aug. 7 primary and five months before the November general election, Gov. Bill Haslam doesn't sound like his sole focus is on winning a second term.
He sounds like a candidate looking farther out than that.
In his first speeches since officially hitting the campaign trail, Haslam has leaped over small matters — such as what he'd do if re-elected — to big themes such as the direction of the Republican Party and the nation at large.
Haslam seems to want to get in on the conversation being led by major Republican figures such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who barnstormed the state a few days ago; Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentuckian known to drop into Nashville on occasion; and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
While those people court the presidency, Haslam says he's not interested in running for anything beyond governor. But don't believe it. His most recent speeches indicate a politician who wants to keep his options open — if not for 2016, then for 2018 and beyond.
Haslam can help his re-election bid by looking past the immediate horizon. With no major challengers from Republicans or Democrats, Haslam faces little pressure to defend his record in his first term.
That gives him license to choose what he wants to talk about. In his May 31 kickoff speech, the governor spoke about political philosophy. Setting up a not-quite-straw-man, Haslam took down the view that Republicans oppose all government.
Instead, Haslam told supporters, government plays an essential role in areas such as road building and education. The GOP should counter its critics by presenting its leaders as managers who keep costs low and deliver results, he said.
"We think government is and should be a force for good," he said. "But it should be a force that's responsible — for now and for future generations — and kept under control."
Haslam tested out a second thought three days later in a speech to Republicans when he said they should take up concerns about rising income inequality.
Shaping the debate
Playing the statesman lets Haslam recast the issues that might have hurt him at the polls.
Instead of defending Common Core, Haslam can portray himself as a chief executive trying to modernize the state's education system. Rather than defend his tax policies or answer questions about his family's business and wealth, he can talk about Tennessee Promise, his community college program.
And without a serious opponent, Haslam can say what he wants without much chance of blowback.
In his income inequality remarks, he said Great Society programs hadn't cut poverty, ignoring evidence that income inequality dropped sharply in the 1960s and '70s. Haslam similarly placed the blame for current levels of inequality squarely on President Barack Obama's shoulders, without feeling the need to acknowledge the wealth destroyed when the banking industry nearly collapsed.
Haslam's thoughts on good government and economic fairness have gone over well with his audiences, and they should with voters. They also could lay the foundation on which to build a broader platform later.
The governor may claim he hasn't thought about races beyond this one. But he doesn't lose by presenting himself as a candidate with a political future after November.
Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 and on Twitter @chassisk.