FANCY FARM — The governor was vacationing in Florida. Members of Congress were working in Washington. The audience was smaller and less rowdy than usual. Even the traditionally oppressive heat stayed away from this year's Fancy Farm Picnic.
With no statewide elections this year, the best reason to make the long drive to Graves County on Saturday was the barbecue, fresh vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the families of St. Jerome parish.
The focus of this year's political speaking was the 2010 U.S. Senate race, which turned into a wide-open contest last week, when Republican incumbent Jim Bunning, 77, became the last person in Kentucky to realize it was time for him to retire.
Three Republicans and four Democrats who are seeking their parties' nominations for the seat next May spoke to the crowd. I found them all disappointing. (Go to my blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com to hear the speeches for yourself.)
When they weren't beating up on each other, the Democrats were blaming eight years of Republican government for the nation's economic problems. The Republicans were stoking fear about what might happen as a result of Democrats' efforts to solve those problems.
The sharpest words came from the two Democratic frontrunners, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway.
Mongiardo, a Hazard physician and coal industry advocate, tried to portray himself as the candidate of the common man. He attacked Conway, of Louisville, for his Duke University education and alleged "silver spoon" background.
Then Mongiardo tried to link Conway to President Barack Obama's "cap-and-trade" legislation, which is designed to reduce pollution from burning coal. It was a stretch. Besides, Fancy Farm seemed like an odd place to argue, in essence, that concerns about man-made climate change are unfounded.
Western Kentucky's trees remain bent and broken from last fall's bizarre hurricane winds and last winter's crippling ice storm. It's usually about 100 degrees at the Fancy Farm Picnic. This year, temperatures never left the low 80s, while, across the country, usually balmy Seattle is gripped by a heat wave.
Conway, whose supporters held up signs that said "Mongiardo doesn't know Jack," took a few verbal swipes at the doctor and showed he knows how to cuss. The attorney general talked about how much he has worked on consumer-protection issues.
Secretary of State Trey Grayson's speech was straight from the conservative playbook, complete with sneering references to Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Grayson needed to play to the GOP's conservative base. His main challenger is Bowling Green eye doctor Rand Paul, son of Texas congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, the darling of libertarians.
Paul attacked Republicans and Democrats alike. He talked about balanced budgets and held up a thick stack of paper, saying senators shouldn't vote on any bill they haven't fully read. At one point, somebody in the GOP cheering section behind me yelled, "You're boring!"
Three virtual unknowns cast themselves as alternatives to politics as usual: Democrats Darlene Fitzgerald Price, a former U.S. Customs agent from McCreary County, and Maurice Sweeney, a businessman from Jefferson County; and Republican Bill Johnson, a Todd County businessman.
The Fancy Farm crowd is always more interested in heckling than listening, so it's hard to tell which candidates' messages might resonate with average voters. For me, the most relevant words came from State Auditor Crit Luallen, once you filtered out her obligatory Democratic partisanship.
As citizens have seen jobs disappear, Luallen said, "they have watched banking scandals unfold, the meltdown on Wall Street, the disclosure of extravagant corporate perks and irresponsible spending of their tax dollars by public leaders. The American people have had it up to here. They've said enough is enough."
What voters want is accountability, and she said it is not a partisan issue.
"These are times that demand leaders with integrity to restore trust, leaders with principles to act responsibly, leaders with the courage to take on powerful interests and leaders who will ensure accountability for your hard-earned money," she said.
"It's time to honor the public's demands for greater accountability. Every public leader is a guardian of the taxpayer's trust. And we must all recommit ourselves to honor and hold sacred that trust."
It was a good speech. But I couldn't help but think Luallen should have delivered it facing the stage rather than the audience.
Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.