- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky Democrats hoping this is their best chance in years to oust Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell weren’t surprised when their top nemesis came out swinging.

The four-term incumbent opened his 2008 general election campaign with a TV spot linking his Democratic challenger to a tiny increase in Kentucky’s gas tax as voters fumed over skyrocketing fuel prices.

The gambit was vintage Mr. McConnell: define the opposition with stinging attacks and leave them on the defensive.

Such strategies, long at the heart of his political playbook, make him a favorite despite a difficult climate for Republicans nationally and a well-funded opponent, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“He knows how to win under adverse conditions. He knows how to win tough races,” Mr. Sabato said.

But challenger Bruce Lunsford’s personal wealth will allow him to keep up in campaign spending, and Mr. McConnell acknowledges he’s a target because his leadership post has had him tangling with Democrats on issues such as the Iraq war and energy policy.

His opening salvo underscored there’s no complacency in his strategy, that he’s not relying on incumbency or Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s presumed coattails in Kentucky to carry him to a fifth term.

The ad claimed Mr. Lunsford, as a gubernatorial aide years ago, helped pass a state law that has led to periodic increases in the state fuel tax, which rose 1.5 cents per gallon this summer.

Mr. McConnell “was determined to define Lunsford before Lunsford defined himself,” Mr. Sabato said.

The tax goes toward the state highway fund. Critics saw the ad as a blatant exaggeration of the impact of those fractional increases on overall gas prices.

Mr. Lunsford has blasted such attacks as a “McCon Job” meant to divert attention from the incumbent’s record. He has fired back with aggressive ads of his own, including one portraying Mr. McConnell as the ultimate Washington insider.

Mr. Lunsford characterizes Mr. McConnell as a crony of President Bush and special interests, including oil companies, and offers himself as a political outsider. He has never held elected office.

“It would be hard to say anything’s been done by this leadership for the last six years that has been productive for this country,” Mr. Lunsford said. “I’m not sure you could have tried to hurt the country any worse if you had done it purposely than what they’ve done.”

Mr. McConnell is mostly tightlipped about Mr. Bush, once walking away from reporters after being asked to assess the president’s job performance. For years, Mr. McConnell was one of Mr. Bush’s most vocal congressional allies, and the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao, is Mr. Bush’s labor secretary.

In a recent interview, Mr. McConnell acknowledged that Mr. Bush - who carried Kentucky twice - is “not very popular,” but said the president’s standing will have minimal impact on the campaign.

About 57 percent of the state’s 2.9 million voters are Democrats and about 36 percent are Republicans, but Mr. Bush won the state with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2004. Republicans have dominated Kentucky’s federal elections in recent years, and now hold both U.S. Senate seats and four of six congressional seats.

Mr. McConnell said Mr. Lunsford has a bigger problem with Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, who was trounced by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Kentucky’s spring primary. Mr. McCain is heavily favored to carry Kentucky in November.

“Obama is going to be on the ballot; Bush is not,” Mr. McConnell said.

Mr. McConnell also says Kentucky has reaped benefits from his role as the Senate’s top-ranking Republican, boasting he delivered about $500 million in federal funding for the state last year. Another Mr. McConnell ad asked: “Remind me again what Lunsford’s ever done for Kentucky?”

Mr. Lunsford has agreed to eight debates in the campaign’s final weeks, but Mr. McConnell has been noncommittal except for a debate set for Saturday in northern Kentucky.

Dick Hammond had already made up his mind before a McConnell speech in Danville: He supports the incumbent.

“I’m so thoroughly disgusted with Congress,” Mr. Hammond said. “If we didn’t have him and a few others like him, they might as well adjourn and go home.”

Mr. Lunsford, a millionaire, has played up high fuel prices during stints working gas pumps across Kentucky.

When his “On the Job” tour took him to Appalachia, Falline Holbrook chatted with Mr. Lunsford as he filled a small gas tank she uses for her lawn mower and then hoisted it into the back of her pickup truck.

“You know what, he was just like me and you,” Miss Holbrook said later. “It ain’t how much money you’ve got, it’s what’s in your heart. It’s how you treat people that matters.”

Mr. Lunsford is trying to portray himself as a regular guy, noting he worked in tobacco fields as a boy and on road crews to help pay his way through college.

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” said Mr. Lunsford, who built a nursing home and hospital company from scratch in the 1980s.

He spent about $14 million of his own money in Democratic gubernatorial primaries in 2003 - when he dropped out - and 2007, when he lost to now-Gov. Steve Beshear. He had injected $3 million of his own money into his Senate campaign through June.

Meanwhile, Mr. McConnell reported having more than $9 million on hand. Last time around, in 2002, he won nearly 65 percent of the vote to beat Lois Combs Weinberg, the daughter of a former governor.

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