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State Race Seen as Referendum on Bush's Policies

In Kentucky, a contest to replace the governor is called a bellwether for U.S. economic concerns.

October 31, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. — This tradition-bound state, home to Daniel Boone, Bourbon whiskey and the storied racehorse Man o' War, is not necessarily the kind of place you'd expect to be viewed as a political bellwether.

After all, this is still a state where every new officeholder must swear that he has not participated in a duel.

This Tuesday, however, leaders of both parties and political junkies everywhere will turn their eyes to the Bluegrass state as voters go to the polls to replace scandal-ridden Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton. That's because Democrats here and their advisors in Washington have nationalized the election and made it a referendum on President Bush's economic policies.

The Democrat in the race, Atty. Gen. Ben Chandler, has consistently referred to his opponent, Republican Rep. Ernie Fletcher, as a puppet to the president's puppet master. The "Bush-Fletcher economy" has cost the state 60,000 jobs, most of them in the poorest areas that could least afford it, Chandler said.

To further make the point, the state Democratic Party's Web site depicts the Republican contender as a cartoonish, gun-toting character named Fletcher-Bush, "the job terminator."

If Chandler beats Fletcher, it will be the first hard evidence outside the ever-shifting polls that Bush is vulnerable in 2004 on the economy. It would also hearten the nine contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

As the election draws near, however, doubts are growing about the Democratic strategy. One poll showed Chandler trailing Fletcher by nine percentage points. And an Associated Press poll showed that, despite the sluggish economy and setbacks in Iraq, three out of five Kentuckians still liked Bush. The president will be in Kentucky this weekend to stump for Fletcher.

However the race turns out, it will be an important signpost. "There is so much national attention on this race," said Kentucky State Historian James Klotter. "It will be viewed as a bellwether for what's taking place in the nation as a whole."

Both candidates have strong credentials. Fletcher is a 50-year-old doctor and former fighter pilot, while Chandler, 44, has been the state's chief law enforcement officer for eight years. He is the grandson of former Gov. Happy Chandler, who as baseball commissioner helped integrate baseball.

Democrats have occupied the governor's mansion in Frankfort, a replica of Marie Antoinette's villa, for the last 32 years. But the scandals enveloping the sitting governor, Patton, have given Fletcher ammunition of his own to use against the Democrats on his "Next Stop: Cleaning Up Frankfort" bus tour.

The once-popular Patton was brought down when a woman who owned a nursing home filed a lawsuit, claiming that the governor put state inspectors on her trail and drove her out of business after she broke off her personal relationship with him. Patton denied abusing his office but eventually admitted to the affair with Tina Conner.

Historically, like the South as a whole, Kentucky had been a one-party state, Democratic. The state values its traditions so highly that every incoming governor, as well as other officeholders, must participate in the anachronistic rite of foreswearing dueling.

But the same social strains that have tilted much of the rest of the South into the Republican camp in recent elections are at play here. Kentuckians, even Democrats, tend to value the right to carry a gun and are often against abortion rights.

"The Kentucky Democratic Party is much more conservative than the national party," Klotter said. That has contributed to the party's losing a grip on the congressional delegation, seven of whom are now Republicans. President Bush carried the state easily in 2000, by a 57%-41% margin.

Still, Kentucky's sour demographics made it a tempting "petri dish," as one Democratic operative put it, to take on Bush. Besides the job losses at Mattel, Fruit of the Loom and North Star Steel, the state faces a $250-million deficit. That may not sound like much in California terms, but it's a serious matter in a state of just 4 million people.

While technology and health-care companies have broadened and modernized the economy inside the Golden Triangle bordered by Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington, large areas of the state are struggling. Men still dig and die for coal in the east, while tobacco farmers, despite the lawsuits, cling to a vanishing industry.

"If you took out the Golden Triangle, we'd be the poorest state in the nation," said Mark Nickolas, Chandler's campaign manager.

Political observers say Chandler is still in the race, but he must find a way to separate himself from Patton. "Chandler's challenge is to keep this from being a referendum on Democratic policies of the last 30 years," said Bill Bryant, the political reporter at WKYT-TV in Lexington.

Chandler said he was trying. He said he had thrown more than 50 officials out of office or into jail, including members of his own party. He's also enlisted some of Kentucky's most revered figures, including former Sen. Wendell Ford and University of Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall, to accuse Fletcher of running a nasty campaign.

The Fletcher forces claim to have no objections to Chandler's efforts to tie their candidate to Bush. "We welcome that," said Daniel Groves, Fletcher's campaign manager. "We've embraced the president."

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