By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press
FRANKFORT - With eight Democrats and Republicans running for Kentucky governor, you'd think they would be bashing each other heading into next month's primaries. Instead, they have ganged up on Gov. Paul Patton, the term-limited Democrat who dropped a plan to run for Senate after admitting he cheated on his wife in an affair that has led to state and federal investigations into whether he misused his office to help or retaliate against his lover.
Democrats are distancing themselves from Patton and Republicans are hoping they can win the governorship for the first time in 36 years, though the GOP front-runner has been in court because his first choice as running mate was bounced by a judge because of residency problems.
It has all made for a rather jumbled campaign.
Political scientist Paul Blanchard predicts Patton will be less of a pariah to Democrats after the May 20 primary.
"The major theme the Republicans will have in the fall is it's time for a change," said Blanchard, director of the Center for the Study of Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University. "Whoever the Democratic nominee is, there's going to have to be at least modest credit given for the accomplishments of the governor."
Whatever those accomplishments, Patton is persona non grata: A poll in February by the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper gave him a 39 percent approval rating, lowest for a governor in the poll's history.
Patton was undone by his affair with nursing home owner Tina Connor. Allegations that her construction company got favors from his administration - and her nursing home was targeted by state inspectors after she broke off the relationship - are now under investigation by the FBI and Kentucky attorney general's office.
A state ethics commission, which has civil jurisdiction, has filed conflict-of-interest charges against Patton, who has denied doing anything illegal.
Two of Patton's top aides are also under indictment for allegedly breaking campaign finance laws in his 1995 race. Lt. Gov. Steve Henry planned to run for governor but dropped out after being sued by the government for alleged Medicare and Medicaid fraud.
With all this, Democratic candidates want nothing to do with the two-term governor.
Jody Richards, longtime speaker of the Kentucky House, tells audiences without being asked, "there has never been a hint of scandal" in his background. Attorney General Ben Chandler says he has conducted himself "with virtue" and honesty. The third major candidate, millionaire businessman Bruce Lunsford, assails "these characters in Frankfort" with the gusto of a Republican.
Patton refuses to lash back. "I'm not going to get into the debate over the governor's race. I'm not going to have any reaction. The press can make of it as they will," he said in an interview.
The Democratic nomination appears to be up for grabs: The February C-J poll showed Chandler leading the other candidates, but most voters were undecided.
There are four Republicans in the race, with Rep. Ernie Fletcher considered the front-runner. The others are Rebecca Jackson, former judge-executive of Jefferson County, and state lawmakers Steve Nunn and Virgil Moore. Nunn's father, Louie Nunn, was the last GOP governor.
The Republicans have also hammered at Patton and Democrats in general. Fletcher says he would install "people of rock solid values" if elected and, like Democrat Lunsford, has made "the mess in Frankfort" a slogan of his campaign.
Nunn has called for an investigation of the administration's awarding of contracts. Moore has confined most of his criticism of Patton to matters of tax policy.
The GOP primary has been fought as much in court as on the stump. Fletcher lost his first running mate when a judge ruled Hunter Bates, once a top aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell, did not meet constitutional residency requirements.
Fletcher replaced Bates with Steve Pence, a former federal prosecutor who handled bribery and influence peddling cases involving the General Assembly in the early 1990s. The Nunn campaign went to court to try to get Fletcher himself disqualified for originally fielding an ineligible running mate, but a judge ruled Friday that Fletcher could stay on the ballot. A lawyer for Nunn's running mate promised an appeal.
Moore has running-mate problems of his own in addition to having raised only $8,000. The running mate, retired Secret Service agent Don Bell, has disavowed the campaign but waited too long to get his name off the ballot.
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