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Kentucky Senatorial Race A Toss-Up

Bunning leads the Republican field of candidates, but the Democratic side is heating up

WASHINGTON (June 24) -- Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford's announcement in March that he would not seek re-election was not unexpected and this race has gotten off to a fast start.

The Republican field was established quickly when Rep. Jim Bunning announced his bid. Bunning, elected in 1986, represents the 4th Congressional District in the northeastern corner of the state, which includes Covington and Ashland.

He was first elected with 55 percent and has bettered his performances since then. Bunning spent much of his adult life before politics as a pitcher in the major leagues. From 1977 to 1979, he was on the Fort Thomas City Council, then was elected to the state Senate, a post he held until 1983. That year, he made an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

Bunning will be opposed in the primary by state Sen. Barry Metcalf, who was considering a challenge to Ford. Metcalf, 37, is in the construction business and won his Senate seat in a 1994 special election. Bunning seems to be the choice of the GOP leadership and Metcalf may not pose much of a threat.

The field on the Democratic side is not quite as settled. The announced candidate is Rep. Scotty Baesler. He was elected to Congress from the 6th Congressional District in 1992. The district is in the east-central part of the state and its population centers are Lexington and Frankfort, the state's capital. Before coming to Congress, Baesler, 55, was a lawyer and a farmer.

He began his career in politics in 1974, when he was elected Vice Mayor of Lexington. After an unsuccessful bid for Mayor in 1977, he was elected Fayette County district judge in 1979 and Mayor of Lexington in 1981. He held that position until 1990. Baesler is a member of the Blue Dog coalition in Congress.

Another likely candidate is businessman Charlie Owen. Owen made his money in cable television and is very wealthy. This concerns Baesler supporters, since he can essentially finance a campaign himself while Baesler will need to work for every dollar raised. Owen is not a newcomer to politics: in 1994, he ran in the Democratic primary in the 3rd Congressional District, placing third.

There are a number of other candidates looking at the race who have not yet made announcements. They are: Jefferson County Judge Dave Armstrong, Lt. Gov. Steve Henry and former state Human Resources Secretary Masten Childers.

The betting is that none of the three will run.

There have been two polls since Ford made his announcement. The Bluegrass Poll conducted by the Louisville Courier-Journal (March 24-31 of 633 registered voters) tested the favorable ratings of some potential candidates, but none scored above 31 percent. Bunning had a favorable rating of 31 percent and an unfavorable rating of 7 percent, while Baesler's favorable rating was 25 percent and his unfavorable rating was 11 percent.

Henry's favorable to unfavorable scores were 8 percent to 2 percent, while Owen's were 3 percent to 2 percent. A poll taken for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee by Hickman-Brown Research from April 6-8 of 500 registered voters showed both Baesler and Beshear ahead of Bunning. Baesler defeated Bunning, 40 percent to 35 percent, and Beshear beat him, 44 percent to 34 percent.

According to the survey, 34 percent said that they would not consider voting for Bunning, while 26 percent that they would not vote for Beshear and 22 percent said the same about Baesler.

Democrats are extremely pleased with the Hickman-Brown survey, as they contend it confirms their belief that they have the edge in the race. But, don't count Bunning out. You'll find a lot more Democratic political insiders in Kentucky who believe that Bunning will win than you'll find Republicans who think that Baesler will prevail.

With fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell now chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee, suffice it to say that Bunning will get all the national help he desires as McConnell, who is fiercely competitive, is loath to miss a chance to pick up a seat in his home state.

If Bunning has a fault, it is that he can be pretty bull-headed, often ignoring advice once his mind is made up. One example is Bunning's swipe last year at University of Kentucky's then-basketball coach Rick Pitino.

Pitino introduced President Clinton at a rally and Bunning attacked the coach for supporting the Democrat. In doing so, Bunning said that he would no longer support Pitino's team. Democrats argue that Bunning hurt himself by attacking Pitino, who was highly regarded among the legions of UK fans (he recently left to coach the Boston Celtics).

However, this incident has probably been vastly overblown, and in November 1998 few people are likely to be talking or thinking about Pitino in the context of this race. The real significance of the event is that it shows Bunning's willingness to get into fights that have no chance of paying off, a troubling habit.

Ultimately, the race appears to be a toss up and there is unlikely to be any movement for many months.

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Spotlight 1996

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