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McConnell treads on thin ice at home

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Sen. Mitch McConnell's close backing of President Bush on immigration and the Iraq war is costing him support among Kentucky Republicans, and, some party members say, hurting his chances for re-election next year.

The Senate minority leader even faces a primary challenge from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Forgy, who contends that Mr. McConnell's in-state problems are compounded by job losses to producers beyond U.S. borders.

"The average Kentuckian feels we are giving away this country with both hands. Jobs are going, essentially the primacy of the people who made this country great is going, and Mitch McConnell is lumped with the Washington types on this," Mr. Forgy said.

"And the war in Iraq is less troublesome in Kentucky than in many other places, but it is not popular here, and Republican voters see Mitch's views as too close to the president's on the war," said Mr. Forgy, a Lexington lawyer.

The assessment is troublesome for Mr. McConnell, who as minority leader has had to defend unpopular policies of the administration.

"The immigration issue is trouble for everyone in central Kentucky," Republican state Sen. Tom Buford said. "The Iraq war is always difficult for all incumbents, even if they support pulling the troops out. It is a no-win situation when elections are at risk."

Mr. McConnell registered a 48 percent approval rating last month in a SurveyUSA poll.

A county party chairman who supports Mr. McConnell but asked not to be identified said the senator's re-election next year is uncertain, despite the clout he brings Kentucky on Capitol Hill, unless he shows people back home that he understands their distrust of Washington on enforcing immigration laws.

The chairman said he tried to tell Mr. McConnell that he needs to assure the party's base that he opposes Mr. Bush's immigration bill.

The Kentucky Republican Party, torn by the immigration issue, was further fractured after critics said Mr. McConnell acted behind the scenes to back an ultimately unsuccessful primary challenge by former Rep. Anne M. Northup against Gov. Ernie Fletcher earlier this year. The Fletcher faction of the state Republican Party is backing the "draft Forgy" campaign.

Despite his role as minority leader, Mr. McConnell withdrew from much of the fight among fellow Republican senators over the Bush-backed immigration bill supported by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and John McCain and Jon Kyl, Arizona Republicans, among others. Besides border-enforcement provisions, the bill provided a path to citizenship for illegal aliens and a new program for foreign workers.

Constituent pressure peeled away the support of other Senate Republicans, and Mr. McConnell wound up voting against the bill, though he voted for a similar version last year.

"His vote against the bill at the end showed his thinking and that he knew the bill was not going to be good policy for Kentucky or the country," said Fred Karem, a Lexington businessman who went to law school with Mr. McConnell.

Republican leaders in the state agree that immigration is a big issue for core voters, but some say it won't hurt Mr. McConnell.

"I don't know anyone who is more in touch with his constituency than Mitch McConnell," said Jack Richardson IV of Louisville, party chairman in Jefferson County, the state's most populous county and Mr. McConnell's home.

Mr. McConnell acknowledged the grass-roots discontent over immigration.

"During the immigration debate, and ever since, countless well-informed Americans spoke up about the need to enforce our borders and our laws," he said. "Their voice was heard in the Capitol and the White House. The billions we've added to the homeland security funding bill for border security and interior enforcement, and the administration's enhanced commitment to cracking down on illegal immigration are necessary steps toward securing our nation and living up to the expectations of our constituents."

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