Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Look for a war of political heavyweights


By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kentucky has a November gubernatorial race the parties wanted, the pundits predicted and Tuesday's primary voters decided.

Two political heavyweights - Republican Ernie Fletcher and Democrat Ben Chandler - won their party's nominations Tuesday and will square off in a fall campaign that will set the tone and tenor in Kentucky politics for the next several years.

Republicans view Fletcher as the GOP candidate who can win the governor's mansion for the first time in 32 years. He has an impressive resume - two-term congressman, doctor, minister, engineer, fighter pilot - who has the deep backing of the party's establishment.

That support was evident in Tuesday's primary, when Fletcher easily outpolled two other well-known Republicans, former Jefferson County Judge-executive Rebecca Jackson and state lawmaker Steve Nunn, the son of the last GOP governor, Louie Nunn.

"You can call Ernie Fletcher congressman, doctor or captain," said state Sen. Damon Thayer, a Georgetown Republican who represents southern Kenton County. "But after November you'll be calling him governor."

"The Republican Party is united behind a candidate and a message that is going to carry us in the fall," said Thayer, adding that Fletcher - who lives in Lexington and represents a number of Democratic-controlled counties in central Kentucky - has shown in congressional races the ability to attract cross-over votes in general elections.

On the Democratic side, Chandler enjoys one of the great assets of a political campaign: a well-known and even beloved name. His grandfather, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, was a two-term governor and U.S. senator who is one of the legends of Kentucky politics.

But Chandler had a much tougher primary than Kentucky House Speaker Jody Richards. Louisville businessman and Northern Kentucky native Bruce Lunsford pumped $8 million of his own money into the primary and ran blistering attack ads aimed at Chandler before exiting the race late last week. Lunsford then threw his support behind Richards, who made a strong run at Chandler.

Chandler backers said a hard-fought primary would be an asset in the fall. And many of the state's leading Democrats are firmly in the Chandler camp. "Ben Chandler showed he can take a punch and that if he is hit, he will hit back," said Edgewood lawyer Mark Guilfoyle. "And voters are already tired of the attack ads aimed at Ben Chandler because Bruce Lunsford has been running them for weeks. The Republicans can try that, but we've already seen from Lunsford that those attacks don't work."

Though Northern Kentucky turnout was poor Tuesday, Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties will play a major role in choosing the next governor. Chandler and Fletcher carried Northern Kentucky Tuesday for their parties. The votes weren't even close.

Even before the real campaigning in the primary began, Fletcher cleared the deck with widespread support from Republican Party leaders and elected officials. With Northern Kentucky recognized as one of the strongest bastions of GOP support in the state, watch for Republicans to go all out for Fletcher in the fall.

Also boosting Fletcher locally will be the presence of Northern Kentucky Republicans on the statewide fall ballot - Trey Grayson, who is running for secretary of state, and Adam Koenig, candidate for state treasurer. Both ran unopposed in Tuesday's primary, and their fall campaigns will further energize an already excited GOP base of voters in the region.

But Chandler is an anomaly among Democrats in that he keeps the party's voters at home.

Democrats who cross party lines and vote Republican in general elections have boosted the Northern Kentucky GOP in recent years.

But in Chandler's last two statewide elections - victories in '95 and '99 for attorney general - he carried Northern Kentucky, the only Democrat on the ballot to do so in those contests.

Both sides will have plenty of money. Fletcher is backed by a Republican fund-raising machine operated by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, known for his ability to attract campaign cash. Chandler's running mate, Louisville businessman Charlie Owen, is a millionaire who spent $6 million of his own money on a failed 1998 U.S. Senate race.

And both sides are hungry. The Republicans want to keep the momentum they've been building for a decade by winning the true prize of Kentucky politics. The Democrats are eager to stall the charge of the GOP and begin to take back some of the power they've lost in recent years.

Sometimes political campaigns can be meaningless snoozers. And sometimes they can be wars.

This one is going to be an epic.


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