Haslam got caught this week in Tennessee's long-running skirmish over gun rights, an issue he said he never intended to put at the forefront of the campaign. He was asked at several campaign stops about his assurances to the Tennessee Firearms Association on Monday that if elected he would sign a bill to eliminate a requirement to obtain a permit to carry handguns in public.
Democratic opponent Mike McWherter told a news conference that the Knoxville mayor's position was "over the top," newspaper editorials questioned what motivated the comments and term-limited Gov. Phil Bredesen warned that such a move could hurt the state's ability to recruit businesses.
Haslam stressed he wouldn't introduce such a measure, telling supporters at a breakfast meeting in Memphis, "I'm in favor of leaving the handgun permit requirements the way they are now."
Bredesen told reporters after an event in Nashville that governors shouldn't accept every legislative initiative.
"Just because the Legislature does something stupid doesn't mean the governor has to go along with it," said Bredesen, a Democrat.
Bredesen said he counted the carry permits among issues that hurt efforts to attract businesses.
"When we're doing as well as we are with recruiting companies and really on a roll, I really hate to have this anchor dragging behind us," he said. "Which is people doing some things that most reasonable Americans would think are not consistent with American values."
There are about 300,000 handgun carry permit holders in Tennessee. To qualify, they must pass a handgun safety course and pay a $115 fee. Permits are revoked for felony convictions and can be suspended for pending criminal charges or for court orders of protection in domestic violence cases.
"Having some gun regulation clearly is in the interest of the public safety of Tennesseans," McWherter said outside the Memphis convention center where Haslam spoke to state prosecutors.
"This is over the top, it's off the cliff," he said. "It's irresponsible."
An editorial in the Chattanooga Times Free Press said Haslam engaged in "spineless waffling," while The Commercial Appeal of Memphis questioned whether he "is he so malleable that he would never take what might be an unpopular stand."
Haslam at an afternoon stop in Jackson denied he was pandering to gun advocates, who have been concerned about his support for gun rights since the primary. After he entered the governor's race he joined the National Rifle Association and dropped out of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
McWherter and Bredesen are relying on their solid credentials as hunters and gun owners as they attack Haslam on the permits issue.
McWherter, the owner of a Jackson beer distributorship and son of former Gov. Ned McWherter, said Haslam is now trying to take back his comments after realizing how unpopular his position was.
"He's trying to back up from it," McWherter said. "It's further indication of his pandering to a group and then trying to back off those statements."
Haslam was asked by reporters why he didn't threaten a veto if he doesn't personally support changing the current permitting system.
"A veto in Tennessee doesn't mean a whole lot, quite frankly," Haslam responded.
"I'd let the House and Senate debate that, and I'd let them know what my opinion was," he said. "But if they passed that I would sign that."
The Legislature can override a veto with a simple majority in both chambers. Lawmakers in the last two years have twice easily overridden Bredesen's veto of bills to allow permit holders to bring their guns into bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.
McWherter appealed to voters who might have supported Haslam to reconsider before early voting ends next week.
"I would bet there are a lot of people who have voted right now who would take back that vote if they knew what Bill Haslam's position had been on being able to allow anyone to carry a concealed handgun," he said.
Haslam dismissed McWherter's criticism.
"He's trying to make something more out of this than it is," he said. "As I said, I'm in favor of the law how it is now."