Fighting words: Put up your Duke degrees

Loyalty to UK becomes issue in Senate race

jbrammer@herald-leader.comMarch 16, 2010 

FRANKFORT — March Madness knows no boundaries in Kentucky.

Two of the top four contenders in Kentucky's U.S. Senate race are highlighting their opponents' degrees from Duke University in an attempt to parlay the Big Blue Nation's disgust for Christian Laettner and all other Blue Devils into a victory May 18.

Laugh if you want, say political analysts from the University of Kentucky and Duke, but it's no joking matter for the candidates.

"Many Big Blue fans have horrible memories about Duke," said UK political science professor Donald Gross, well aware of the buzzer-beater shot Laettner made in 1992 to give Duke a 104-103 win over UK in an NCAA regional final game.

"I guess arguing over what college a candidate attended is, on the face of it, part of the silly season," the professor said, "but, yes, it could make a difference to some Kentucky fans."

Though mentioning rival basketball teams in a U.S. Senate race is unusual, it's not uncommon for candidates to paint their opponents as outsiders, said Michael C. Munger, chairman of Duke's political science department.

Voters generally want to identify with the candidates they support, Munger said. "Many think, 'You are the same as I am, therefore I will vote for you.'"

As teams for the NCAA Tournament were selected Sunday night — UK and Duke both received No. 1 seeds — Secretary of State Trey Grayson launched an online ad highlighting his key Republican opponent's medical degree from Duke, in Durham N.C.

"In March, there's one big difference between Rand Paul and Trey Grayson," says the ad, which then shows an unflattering picture of Paul with a caption that says "I'm Rand Paul and I'm a Duke Blue Devil."

Paul's campaign responded Sunday night by saying Grayson's campaign has become a joke.

"Well, I guess that might be a real issue if you're running for student council," Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon, said in a statement. "It's especially funny watching my Harvard-educated opponent complain about where I went to medical school."

Paul also noted that "I've been a Kentuckian longer than my opponent's been a Republican," a reference to Grayson's decision to first register as a Democrat and vote for Bill Clinton in 1992 while getting his undergraduate degree at Harvard. Grayson later became a Republican and graduated from UK's College of Law in 1998.

In the Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo dared his key opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, to make a "friendly wager" on Monday about which team would advance farther in the NCAA Tournament.

Conway has an undergraduate degree from Duke and a law degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Mongiardo is a graduate of Transylvania University and UK's College of Medicine.

"If Jack loses, Jack will serve as my golf instructor at Louisville's Audubon Country Club, where he is a member," Mongiardo said in a news release. "If I lose, I will serve as Jack's hunting guide on a wild turkey hunt in Western Kentucky."

Conway's campaign dismissed the proposal in a statement as a "lowbrow political attack" but noted that he has picked UK to win the tournament.

"At a time when Kentucky's unemployment rate is nearly 11 percent, we believe it's more appropriate to keep the focus of this campaign on which candidate can help the people of Kentucky in this difficult economic time," the campaign said. "Jack is less interested in where anyone went to college than in making sure Kentucky families can afford to send their kids to college."

Calling Conway "overly sensitive" about Duke, Mongiardo campaign spokesman Kim Geveden said Conway "really should lighten up" and follow the advice of UK coach John Calipari and "have fun."

Grayson campaign manager Nate Hodson also described his ad as a lighthearted effort to energize supporters. "We're having some fun as we work to organize our campaign through the volunteer and bumper sticker sign-ups we will receive," Hodson said.

Those who click on the ad are taken to Grayson's campaign Web site, where they can watch a short video that shows Paul introducing himself to a crowd as a "Duke Blue Devil."

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