By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Ask politically active Northern Kentucky residents to assess the magnitude of this year's gubernatorial race and the superlatives fly out of their mouths.
"It's the biggest, most important race for Democrats in 20 years," said Jerry Stricker, a Covington Democrat. "The stakes are huge."
"This is a humongous race for" Republicans, said Kenton County GOP Chairman Greg Shumate.
"It's big, it's major," said Campbell County Circuit Clerk Tom Calme, a Bellevue Democrat.
There are shreds of truth in the mountains of hype surrounding this year's race for governor between Democrat Ben Chandler and Republican Ernie Fletcher. The contest comes against a smoldering Frankfort sex scandal, a rising tide of Republican influence and a Democratic Party desperate to hold on to one of its last bastions of true political power in the state.
"This is a pivotal race, really for both parties," Shumate acknowledged. "I know there is a lot of excitement on our side. The tide has been going out way, and we've got to keep that tide going."
"We're not letting go that easily," said Campbell County Clerk Jack Snodgrass, a Cold Spring Democrat. "We're ready for the fight."
The balance of political power in Kentucky is at a crossroads, and the November election for governor will determine which way it turns - left or right.
For years Democrats dominated Kentucky politics, particularly in Frankfort. Elections were decided in primaries because so few Republicans stepped up to run for office. The GOP hasn't elected a governor since Louie Nunn in 1967.
But over the last 20 years and especially in the last decade Kentucky, like so much have the south, has moved swiftly toward the Republicans.
Today, the GOP controls seven of Kentucky's eight federal delegation seats, holds the state Senate and is expected to win one or more of the so-called down-ticket constitutional offices.
Republicans clearly see the race as their chance to assume power in Frankfort. Democrats are digging it to hold on to their legacy of statewide political success.
Gov. Paul Patton, the two-term Democratic governor who leaves office in December, is hardly helping his party this fall. He is reeling from the fallout of a sexual affair and subsequent investigations into his administration. Though Chandler actually initiated some of those investigations and has never been close to Patton, Republicans are trying to link the scandal with kicking Democrats out of Frankfort.
"It's time for a change," Fletcher said last week in Northern Kentucky. "It's time for new leadership. People are tired of what is going on in Frankfort. They want new people, new ideas and a new vision."
Chandler said he expects to hear plenty about Patton this fall, but continues to point out he has nothing to do with the scandal.
"Paul Patton has made it hard for me to be the attorney general, much less the Democratic nominee for governor," Chandler said. "I would think that most Democrats would want somebody who is determined to uphold the law and that is what I've done as attorney general."
Resumes match up to job
Both candidates have resumes full of accomplishments that bode well for gubernatorial candidates.
Chandler, who lives on a Woodford County farm that has been in his family for more than 200 years, has the political pedigree. His grandfather, the late A.B. "Happy" Chandler, is perhaps Kentucky's best know and most loved politician in history. He was a two-term governor and U.S. Senator fondly remembered for belting out "My Old Kentucky Home" at University of Kentucky basketball games and other public events.
People who have known Ben Chandler for years say he has been running for governor since he was a child talking about moving his own family into the governor's mansion his "grand pappy" occupied.
Chandler, 43, has certainly taken the political steps to reach the governor's office. He served one term as auditor and is completing his second term as attorney general.
"What Ben Chandler brings to the job is experience and a knowledge of how to get things done," said Stricker, one of Fletcher's leading campaign organizers in Northern Kentucky. "He's been around it all his life. He knows it."
Fletcher's background is so varied and accomplished it's practically unbelievable.
A native of Mount Sterling who was raised in Lexington, Fletcher, 50, has degrees in engineering and medicine. He worked as a family practice doctor. He flew fighters in the Air Force, is an ordained Baptist minister who oversaw a congregation from 1989 to 1994 and served in the Kentucky House of Representatives Last year, he was elected to his third term as Kentucky's Sixth District Congressman.
"This is a man who, when he puts his mind to something, gets it done," said Kenton County Judge-executive Dick Murgatroyd, who served with Fletcher in the statehouse during the mid-1990s.
Up for a debate
But despite their successes and careers in and around politics, Fletcher and Chandler don't seem to possess the same campaign skills and acumen as some of Kentucky's other top pols. They lack the political intellect of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the dominating presence of Sen. Jim Bunning and the folksy warmth of Gov. Paul Patton.
The rub on Chandler is that he can be smug. Fletcher can sometimes be dull, critics say.
Yet both candidates have also shown they are up for a fight.
In a joint television appearance two weeks ago on KET's Kentucky Tonight they sparred repeatedly, interrupting one another often and disputing point after point.
Fletcher's camp tried to make political hay late last week over a fund-raiser Chandler held in Los Angeles. Fletcher campaign manager Daniel Groves told the Associated Press that by going to the event Chandler "will be controlled by the far-left Hollywood elite."
Chandler has done his own sniping at Fletcher, dogging some Republican campaign events with a character based on The Terminator movie. The Democrats use the costumed character to try and make the point that the Bush administration that Fletcher supports in Washington has "terminated" jobs in Kentucky.
At other events Chandler has a young staffer digitally taping all of Fletcher's remarks.
Fletcher appeared unfazed at the attention during two Northern Kentucky campaign stops last week.
"Tell Ben I said hi," Fletcher told the camera operator.
5 issues to watch
Kentucky's gubernatorial race between Republican Ernie Fletcher and Democrat Ben Chandler will feature plenty of debate over the usual topics - education, the budget, job creation, health care, criminal justice and social issues. There are five other volatile issues that can move voters:
Should they stay or go? The "throw the bums out" campaign has long been one of the most effective methods to win political office. Fletcher is all over that theme, arguing that after more than 30 years of holding the governor's mansion it's time for the Democrats to go. But voter registrations still favor Democrats. (1,582,962) over Republicans (938,232), though the gap has narrowed.
Gambling. The wild card in the election. After languishing in Frankfort for the last two years, legalized casino gambling is back in the political forefront thanks to Chandler's overt support of putting the issue on the ballot. He's even gone so far as to suggest that the state needs full-blown casinos, not just computerized slots and blackjack at race tracks. Fletcher has tried to stay away from the issue so as to not anger the GOP's conservative wing. But he has said he won't stand in the way of gaming should the legislature move to put it on next year's statewide ballot.
Geography. In 1995, Northern Kentucky was one of the major battlefields of the gubernatorial race between Republican Larry Forgy and eventual winner Paul Patton, a Democrat. The region was shifting quickly from a Democratic region to one controlled by Republicans. Forgy was trying to capture the new voters while Patton worked desperately to keep conservative Dems from switching parties or voting Republican. Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties will still see plenty of the candidates this fall. But the true fight in the election is in western Kentucky.
Paul Patton. Before this election is over, television viewers will be treated to clips of Patton pulling his best Jimmy Swaggart and tearfully admitting to the sexual affair that doomed his political career and soiled his legacy. The ad will probably come from a group outside the Fletcher campaign - probably the state Republican Party - but it plays right into the "throw the bums out" platform (see above.)
George Bush. There is a reason Fletcher doesn't want to make the race into a debate on national issues, which Chandler is attempting to pull off. Things aren't going well for the once incredibly popular president. Soldiers are dying in Iraq. The economy is struggling. Gas prices are skyrocketing. White House approval numbers are dropping. Don't think for a minute Republicans aren't getting a case of deję vu when it comes to a popular Bush squandering what once looked to be an insurmountable lead. Fletcher, as a three-term member of Congress, has been on board with the president on most issues. And Bush remains popular in Kentucky. While other national pols are anxious to see if bashing Bush works for Chandler as a precursor to the 2004 presidential election, Kentucky voters may not equate Washington with Frankfort. It will be up to Chandler's campaign to effectively make that case.
The Associated Press contributed. E-mail email@example.com
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