WASHINGTON — Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning's absence during the busy first week of the 111th Congress has raised questions about the 77-year-old junior senator's viability as a candidate for re-election in 2010.
So far this month, Bunning, who sits on the Senate's Finance, Energy and Natural Resources and Banking committees, missed three cabinet confirmation hearings and a GOP strategy session on President-elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. He's also missed critical votes on releasing the second portion of the $700 billion federal bailout on the nation's troubled financial sector — a measure Bunning has staunchly opposed.
Bunning's congressional staffers attribute his absences to family commitments and declined to discuss where the senator has been for the better part of a month. He did not return a call for comment, but his office issued a statement saying Bunning is ready to take on whomever the Democratic Party fields as a candidate next year.
The 2010 election "may be a little more problematic for him," said Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. "One of the problems he had in the election last time was a perception of whether he was becoming less competent than he was in previous years."
During the 2004 campaign, Bunning said Democratic rival Daniel Mongiardo looked "like one of Saddam Hussein's sons." Bunning later apologized.
Mongiardo said Friday he thinks he would have the upper hand if he decides to run again for Bunning's seat, telling The Associated Press that if he enters the race he expects Bunning to bow out. "I don't think Sen. Bunning has the fight left in him to run," said Mongiardo.
Bunning eked out a win in 2004 over Mongiardo, then a little-known state senator from Hazard.
In 2004 Bunning was criticized for participating in a live candidate debate via satellite from a remote location using a TelePrompTer. In April 2006, Time magazine called him one of "America's Five Worst Senators" and criticized his "lackluster performance."
However, last year Bunning became a media darling after years of accurately predicting financial turmoil if government agencies kept bailing out privately owned businesses.
The senator is rarely absent from work and missed fewer than 20 votes last year, according to govtrack.us. That statistic made his absence this week more noticeable.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., noted that Bunning was "necessarily absent" but did not elaborate Wednesday on the Senate floor. And in a week in which Bunning normally would have sounded off about the Treasury Department lending $1.5 billion to Chrysler Financial in addition to the $17 billion in loans to General Motors and Chrysler, he remained relatively silent.
If he runs for re-election, Bunning has his work cut out for him, Gross said.
"The whole use of the TelePromp Ter in the debate and the impression of him not being in control of all his faculties — whether it's fair or not, it could reignite rumors," he said. "He's going to have to start showing up and be an active member of the Senate."
Bunning is expected to attend the Kentucky Society's Bluegrass Ball in Washington on Monday night.