Thursday, November 02, 2000

Kentucky becomes bystander in presidential race

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — In late summer, when it became apparent the 2000 presidential election would be historically close, Al Gore and George W. Bush promised to pursue Kentucky with a passion.

        Historically a bellwether state, Republicans and Democrats lavished money and attention on Kentucky.

        Now with only a few days left until the actual balloting, Kentucky has gone from battleground to bystander.

        It has been more than a month since either candidate set foot in Kentucky and neither Joseph Lieberman nor Dick Cheney have been back since they left Danville on Oct. 7 after their nationally televised debate. The GOP has quit running TV commercials aimed specifically at Kentucky, though some Gore ads are still airing in Louisville.

        “We were key to Gore winning,” acknowledged Harry Carver, executive director of the Kentucky Democratic Party. But when Florida, for example, came into play for Mr. Gore, Kentucky got caught up in electoral math where eight votes don't mean as much as 25.

        Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton said Mr. Gore's campaign is focusing on the presidency.

        “I think Gore's putting out the effort to win the race and I support and respect that,” Mr. Patton said.

        Republicans have a different perspective.

        Mr. Bush visited Kentucky six times after sewing up the nomination and Mr. Cheney came twice, not counting the Danville debate. Mr. Gore came to Kentucky only twice and, though Mr. Lieberman was here for the week preceding the debate, never made any real campaign appearances.

        “I don't think Gore ever took it seriously,” said Kentucky Republican Chairwoman Ellen Williams. “He never came to have a conversation with the voters of Kentucky.”

        Mr. Gore's apparent indifference aggravated Kentucky Democrats, who thought a bit more attention could have carried the state.

        Now it appears certain Mr. Bush will carry Kentucky and Democrats are left to hope the state's voters stray from their 40-year trend of picking the eventual president.

        “Nothing makes you shift strategy any faster than believing you can't win,” said U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is Mr. Bush's campaign chairman for Kentucky.

        Republicans insist they are not overconfident.

        We have not “just quit and just waiting to see who votes,” Ms. Williams said. “Our ground war, so to speak, is going on.”

        Mr. Carver said Democrats are also on edge, with the three contested congressional races and important legislative contests still to be determined.

        “I would say even at this late date, it is not impossible for Gore to win in Kentucky,” Mr. Patton said Wednesday.

        Mr. Carver agreed. “If we do a better job of turnout than they do, you don't know what's going to happen.”

        Conventional wisdom had Kentucky Democrats with a decided advantage going into every election. And Democrats still enjoy a registration advantage, though nothing like the 2 1/2-1 advantage of a decade ago.

        But the voting patterns of recent years make a mockery of conventional wisdom. Seven of the eight members of Congress from Kentucky are Republicans and 20 of the 38 state senators are from the GOP, though admittedly two of them were elected as Democrats and changed registration later.

        “We've gone to being a state of ticket splitters,” Mr. Carver said.

        There are 2.55 million registered voters eligible to cast ballots Tuesday, where polls are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The total is 165,625 more than in 1992, when 59.3 percent of those registered cast ballots. Turnout hit a record in 1992, when 73.2 percent of those registered actually voted.


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