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VOL. 125 | NO. 171 | Thursday, September 02, 2010

Students Question Haslam, McWherter at Gov's Forum

ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press Writer

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NASHVILLE (AP) – A new Tennessee law allowing guns to be carried in bars and the controversy over a planned mosque in Murfreesboro were among the issues on the minds of high school students at a gubernatorial forum Tuesday evening.

Republican Bill Haslam and Democrat Mike McWherter participated in the event hosted by first lady Andrea Conte at the governor's mansion in which students from nine schools asked the candidates questions.

Term-limited Gov. Phil Bredesen laughed off applause from the students when he came into the room, saying: "I'm a has-been."

Haslam said he supports a new law that allows handgun carry permit holders to be armed in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol – as long as business owners continue to be able to have the final decision on whether guns will be allowed.

Bredesen earlier in the day called the law "a stupid idea," and McWherter told reporters after the event that the law should be refined to better distinguish between bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

"They don't really need to be into what I call a honky-tonk after 9 or 10 o'clock at night," he said. "People are not there to eat, they're there to celebrate.

"And we do not need to have guns around those types of situations."

In one of the only barbs of the evening, McWherter noted that Haslam only joined the National Rifle Association after he declared he was running for governor.

Haslam laughed off the gibe after the event, saying "Mike knows I support Second Amendment rights, that's really clear."

McWherter, a Jackson beer distributor and son of former Gov. Ned McWherter, said he hopes the NRA will endorse him in the race over Haslam.

McWherter was asked about his stance on a future mosque in Murfreesboro where a suspicious fire last weekend damaged construction equipment.

McWherter said he supports freedom of religion, but that neighborhoods should be able to impose zoning restrictions "so the house you bought you can continue to resell."

But he criticized those who set the fire.

"I think the people down there who committed those atrocities down there in burning that equipment should be found and prosecuted to the full extent of the law," he said.

Haslam said after the forum that the future mosque is a "local land-use issue," and that he wouldn't interfere in the process. He also condemned the fire and vandalism at the site.

"No one should condone what's just happened, it's not acceptable in any way," he said. "There's no excuse what happened there in the last week."

Haslam stressed his business and executive experience with the family-owned Pilot Corp. chain of truck stops. Haslam noted that the chain was started by his father with a single gas station.

"Today we have over 20,000 employees spread across the country," said Haslam, who was president of Pilot before he was elected mayor of Knoxville in 2003.

College tuition, childhood obesity and environmental protection were among some of the other issues raised by the students.

McWherter said he'd seek to reduce college tuition by offering more online courses. Haslam said he would work to strike a balance between environmental regulation and trying to attract investment in Tennessee.

In response to the question about childhood obesity, Haslam said he would "model a healthy lifestyle" as governor and would work to encourage better eating habits through healthier meals in schools.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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