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RELATED STORIES

Two Kentucky congressmen to face off for Senate seat (5-27-98)

A neck-and-neck Senate race in Kentucky

Baesler, Bunning are in a spirited contest

By Brooks Jackson/CNN

HOPINSVILLE, Kentucky (September 29) -- A half-century ago this summer, Harry S. Truman rode a cross-country train to victory over Thomas Dewey, in the last and most famous of the pre-television whistle stop campaigns.

Baesler
Rep. Scotty Baesler aboard his
campaign trail
 

By the time Bill Clinton rode the 21st Century Express to the 1996 Democratic convention, the whistle stop was as much about attracting media attention as meeting everyday people.

Still, the idea of a cross-country train trip retains its political appeal, especially in tight races. In Kentucky's Senate race, Democrat Scotty Baesler took to the rails over the weekend in his battle with Republican Jim Bunning.

Behind the old-time trappings is a very modern campaign, though.

Chugging along in western Kentucky in one of the closest Senate races in the country, Baesler is appealing to tradition.

"It's been 50 years ago this weekend actually that President Truman did it on part of these tracks," Baesler said, on board his campaign train.

Back then, Kentucky was Democratic. Today, Baesler is the state's only Democratic congressman and he is trying to hold on to its only Democratic Senate seat, being vacated by Wendell Ford after 24 years. Polls show it's neck and neck.

"This race is within the margin of error today, would be my guess," said Baesler. "And it will be within the margin of error November 2nd, the night before the election."

Baesler is being outspent, heavily. But this three-day train tour drew lots of news coverage and only cost the equivalent of one day of TV ads.

"We're getting ready to whip the Republicans," he told supporters. "It's time to whip them."

Bunning
Rep. Jim Bunning is Baesler's
Republican challenger
 

To look at this whistle-stop campaign, it looks like a throwback to 50 years ago, pre-television, but it's not. Both candidates are running lots of TV ads, battling over Social Security. TV ads could be decisive.

Democrats started it. One party ad attacks the Republican candidate, Bunning. The ad says, "Call Congressman Bunning. Tell him to stop playing politics and start putting seniors first. "

But it's Bunning who's winning on TV -- big. Since August 1, his ads have run 868 times in the three TV markets that CNN checked, compared to Baesler's 435.

There have been 1,580 Republican Party ads for Bunning and 475 Democratic Party ads, according to CNN's consultant, Competitive Media Reporting.

Thanks to the ads, Bunning has come from behind to pull even or ahead in recent polls, and he plans to keep his advantage in money.

"I think it will continue from now until the end of the campaign," says Bunning.

As a major-league pitcher, Bunning threw more than his share of bean balls. Baesler's game was Kentucky basketball, scrappy on defense.

"We all know that in the next couple weeks of the campaign, even mama is not going to recognize her kids, you know, either one of us," Baesler said.

Social Security is the big issue because elderly voters are a big factor here. Bunning, chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee, is taking the offense, an odd twist for a Republican.

But the truth is, they are both fiscal conservatives. Bunning attacks Baesler for once favoring a cut in future cost-of-living increases, even though he is not opposed to such cuts himself.

"The bill that I voted for said that the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if it's in their wisdom to put a cost of living in, it's OK," said Bunning. "But they haven't done it."

That's the subject of Baesler's very latest attack ad, which points out the candidates have the same position and asks, "Can we trust Jim Bunning?"

This race will go down to the wire. And if the Republican money and advertising advantage holds, it could be a long goodbye for Democrats in the Kentucky congressional delegation.


MORE STORIES:

Tuesday, September 29, 1998

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