Sunday, August 3, 2003

Dems underestimate Jim Bunning

Republican senator determined to win re-election

Pat Crowley

Democrats said Republican Jim Bunning would slow down as he geared up for his 2004 U.S. Senate re-election campaign.

Democrats were wrong.

Northern Kentucky Democrats, who get so little right these days, misread Bunning's commitment and drive to win his second term in the Senate next year. Last year they were actually floating - read "hoping" - the notion that Bunning would not seek re-election.

Perhaps they thought Bunning, who turns 72 in October, had lost the passion for serving in Congress. He was invisible in the community. He wasn't building his political and fund-raising base. Bunning was ripe to beat, the Dems surmised.

Not quite.

Bunning is as focused, energized, determined, active, confident - bordering on cocky - organized and excited as I've seen in the decade I've covered his political career.

He's breaking personal fund-raising records, stashing $1 million in the bank during the second quarter of the year.

When he's not in Washington he's on the road in Kentucky, raising more dough and making the political contacts that are so vital to running a statewide campaign.

He's putting in legislation, such as the proposed tobacco buyout introduced last week, sending money back home and cranking out press releases to let reporters know just how busy he is.

He's fighting with Democrats - something Bunning is really good at - such as the battle with U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a Boone County Democrat, over bringing a decommissioned submarine to the Newport riverfront.

This weekend, just about every Kentucky politician of substance and stature was in far western Kentucky, sweating and hollering at one another at the annual Fancy Farm political picnic.

Not Big Jim. Bunning does what he wants do to. And today that means holding a fund-raiser at the Kentucky Speedway with Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and possible GOP presidential candidate in 2008.

Never mind that Giuliani is more liberal than the Democrats around here. When Bunning was asked recently about Rudy's pro-choice leanings, he made no apologies for using Rudy to raise some campaign cash, saying he would turn to "whomever we can get who will help raise money for a ... 100 percent pro-life candidate."

The Democrats continue to languish in putting together a credible challenge to Bunning. Gov. Paul Patton, who was going to run against Bunning in his pre-Tina Conner days, was out raising money three years ago for the Senate race. The Dems seem to be pinning their hopes on a little-known Louisville Democrat named Fred Cowan, who was Kentucky attorney general but whose name rings few bells among local voters.

Charlie Owen, the wealthy Louisville Democrat running for lieutenant governor, may take a run at Bunning next year. But his political position is precarious at best. If he and Ben Chandler lose the gubernatorial race, then Owen is a three-time loser going against a long-time Congressional veteran. If Owen and Chandler win, then he is vulnerable to the charge that he is already dumping a seat he asked the voters to put him in.

Bunning slowing down? Please. Take a look at his Hall of Fame pro baseball career as a testament to his stamina. Over 17 years in the bigs, Bunning averaged 230 innings a year. Anything over 200 innings is iron-man status. Bunning reached that mark 13 times.

During his days on the mound Bunning wasn't shy about slinging the ball at batters crowding the plate.

Democrats better duck - because Bunning isn't slowing down, he's coming right at them.

E-mail Crowley interviews Covington Mayor Butch Callery and Covington City Manager Greg Jarvis this week on ICN6 Cable's "On the Record", which is broadcast daily on Insight Communications Channel 6.

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