Bill Lee, Republican candidate for governor, greets Huntsville firefighter Andy Bell during the Fall on the Mall Festival at the Huntsville Mall on Saturday, October 20, 2018. Looking on is State Senator Ken Yager, R-Kingston | Ben Garrett/IH
Bill Lee, Republican candidate for governor, chats with Toby Garrett, a seventh grade student at Burchfield School in Oneida, during the Fall on the Mall Festival at the Huntsville Mall on Saturday, October 20, 2018 | Ben Garrett/IH

HUNTSVILLE — The costume contest at the Scott County Chamber of Commerce’s Fall on the Mall event was just getting underway, but a politician stole the show.

Bill Lee, Republican nominee for governor, made a sort of rock-star entrance to the Huntsville Mall Saturday afternoon, flanked by persons of influence from both the local and state levels and greeting as many people as possible.

Lee, a Middle Tennessee businessman, was a virtual unknown before his unlikely election bid. A year later, he appears poised to succeed Bill Haslam in the governor’s mansion, and is easily enough recognized to attract an immediate crowd.

Stepping off the RV that has carried him across the state amid his campaign, Lee was first met by State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, then Huntsville Mayor Dennis Jeffers and others.

“Bill is here to shake hands with as many people as possible and just meet people and hear their concerns,” Lee’s press secretary, Laine Arnold, told the Independent Herald.

For the next 30 minutes, he did just that: shaking hands with the young and the old, admiring babies and posing for pictures — even enjoying a funnel cake prepared on the spot by festival vendors Scott and Derita Phillips.

Lee’s visit to Huntsville, which began with a private, invitation-only event at the former Baker Guest House just off the mall, was part of the gubernatorial hopeful’s “Believe in Tennessee Tour,” through which he has pledged to visit all 95 counties across the Volunteer State in advance of the November 6 general election.

Lee was escorted locally by Fred Marcum, long-time aide to the late Howard H. Baker Jr. He was also accompanied by Yager and State Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown. 

Once considered a long shot in the gubernatorial campaign, Lee has placed himself on the verge of becoming governor in much the same vein as real estate mogul Donald Trump became president. While Lee allies are quick to say, at least privately, that Lee and Trump are quite different, Lee — like Trump — is a political outsider who is riding a populist wave. Facing establishment hopefuls Randy Boyd and Diane Black in the Republican primary, Lee was able to prevail in much the same way that Trump was able to emerge victorious from a crowded Republican field that included Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, among others, in the 2016 GOP primary.

Their populist campaigns aside, however, Lee and Trump present contrasting styles. Trump won over conservatives with an attack-dog mentality, consistently going on the offensive against his opponents — first fellow Republicans in the primary, then Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election.

Lee, on the other hand, emerged victorious among his Republican opponents by taking a low-profile approach amid a campaign that became increasingly negative as it unfolded. As Boyd and Black attacked each other, Lee quietly emerged as a formidable opponent. Once the front-runners realized that Lee was a viable candidate, he was riding a wave of support that carried him to the nomination.

Lee’s campaign for governor is also unlike Trump’s campaign for president in that Trump faced an uphill battle even after winning his party’s nomination and was viewed as an underdog until he stunned the nation on election night. Lee, on the other hand, became an instant front-runner after winning the primary. The latest poll, by Vanderbilt University, finds Lee ahead of his Democratic opponent, former Nashville governor Karl Dean, by 11 points. A poll average maintained by Real Clear Politics finds Lee ahead by 18 points. A New York Times poll earlier this month found him ahead by 26 points.

Dean has hardly thrown in the towel. He announced on Friday that he had received an endorsement from the Sierra Club, and on Saturday launched a new TV ad comparing what he called his “common-sense vision of a compassionate, forward-looking Tennessee” to Lee’s “extreme, ideological policies.”

“I’m not the flashiest guy running, but we don’t need an extreme governor who would take us backward,” Dean says in the ad.

Lee, meanwhile, continues to campaign in the same style that won the GOP primary, focusing on his rural roots, his faith and his success as a private business-owner.

“We’re here at the Fall on the Mall celebration in Scott County with a bunch of Tennesseans on a beautiful afternoon. We’re out on our Believe in Tennessee Tour to talk about how I believe Tennessee can lead the nation with the right leadership,” Lee said in an Instagram video that was taken on the mall in Huntsville.