Keeling: Barbecue garnished with political surprise tasty Fancy Farm dish

Herald-leader columnistJuly 29, 2012 

Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — Welcome to the week elected officials, wannabe elected officials, political junkies, media grunts and folks partial to yummy barbecue and fresh home-cooked veggies pack for the trek down the Western Kentucky Parkway to Saturday's 132nd Annual Fancy Farm Picnic.

Definitely not among the elected officials headed to Fancy Farm are Gov. Steve Beshear, Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. Beshear jetted off to Europe Thursday to do his economic development thing for a couple of weeks. Abramson and Paul will be spending time with their families.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to attend, and may serve as a surrogate for presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. If McConnell doesn't play that role, Romney could be represented by either Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples or U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska. At week's end, picnic officials were still awaiting word on whether President Barack Obama would send a surrogate.

Beshear will also be represented by a surrogate, state House Speaker Greg Stumbo.

But the thing about surrogates is they are surrogates, standing in for people who had better places to be.

Oh, well.

Last time the run-up to Fancy Farm suggested Kentucky's premier political shindig might lack some of its customary spice, former Secretary of State Trey Grayson chose the occasion of the 2006 picnic to jump "off the high board" into the 2007 Republican gubernatorial primary discussion.

Grayson never made it into the deep end of that particular pool. On his way down, he grabbed the high board with the tips of his fingers, climbed back up and got re-elected secretary of state. Still, his abortive leap reminds us the Fancy Farm Picnic fails to whet the appetites of political junkies about as often as it fails to whet the appetites of foodies. And the latter just doesn't happen.

Not all the whetting of political appetites comes from the speeches. They can be bombastic, sure. But they also can be predictable, particularly in years when the lack of U.S. Senate or statewide constitutional elections reduces the number of opposing candidates giving each other hell on the same stage. This is one of those years.

Expect plenty of bombast from Republican speakers — most of it vilifying Obama and everything he's done since he crawled out of the cradle, the rest touting Romney.

Expect some bombast from the Democrats, too, most of it vilifying Romney and everything he's done since he walked into Bain Capital. But if Obama doesn't send a surrogate, don't expect Democratic speakers to offer a passionate defense of their party's national leader. A perfunctory one, maybe. But not a passionate one.

We're talking Kentucky, after all, where even loyal D's rival R's in their conservatism. And we're specifically talking Western Kentucky, where many D's are really R's who haven't come out of the closet yet, except when they're in the privacy of the voting booth. A passionate defense of Obama there likely would produce the first bipartisan crowd response ever witnessed at Fancy Farm — bipartisan booing.

But even if the speeches prove to be predictable and forgettable, cruising the crowd to see who is pressing flesh in a manner befitting a future candidate almost always prompts the kind of juicy speculation political junkies crave in their diet. Of course, you have to throw out the usual suspects who annually show up to work the crowd in hopes of someday auditioning for the big time. Until one of them actually takes the leap off the high board, it's best to look for the unexpected attendees doing the gripping and grinning.

If there is a Democrat — or for that matter, a Republican — itching to take on McConnell in 2014, he or she needs to step up soon unless he or she has pocket change to rival the personal wealth Bruce Lunsford spent funding his near-miss campaign against the Senate minority leader in 2008.

Raising enough money from others to match the gazillions McConnell will have at his disposal takes time, lots of time, for mere mortals. Perhaps Candidate X or Candidates X and Y will reveal themselves at this year's picnic.

And three years out is never too early for wannabes to make noises about the next round of statewide constitutional elections. That's evident from the horde of D's and R's already making noises about running for attorney general. If they all get into the race, Kentucky courtrooms could look as desolate in the spring of 2015 as my yard has looked the past five weeks. The surprise here would be if one or more of the folks whose names have already appeared in print skips the picnic.

In Kentucky, speculation about the next governor's race begins the day after the polls close on the last one. This cycle proved to be no exception. As soon as Beshear won re-election, the chatter began.

On the D side, the names in the chatter include Abramson, Stumbo, Attorney General Jack Conway and former state Auditor Crit Luallen. Plus, 6th District U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler may still have the gubernatorial itch. The R names most often mentioned include 2nd District U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer (who will emcee the political speaking at Saturday's picnic) and Phil Moffett, a favorite of the Tea Party movement who lost to state Senate President David Williams in the 2011 gubernatorial primary.

Except for Abramson (who's a definite no-show) and Chandler (who would be foolish to signal interest in 2015 while in the midst of a tough re-election campaign), it would be no surprise to see others on the two lists join Stumbo and Comer at Saturday's picnic. But only someone not on these lists could start tongues wagging by showing up unexpectedly with a gubernatorial twinkle in their eyes.

Alas, I will not be there to see who it might be. Hope those of you who do make the trip enjoy the show.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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