FANCY FARM — After a tough month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell found out Saturday that his life could be getting a lot tougher.
More than a year before McConnell faces re-election in November 2014, he shared the stage at the 133rd annual Fancy Farm Picnic with two viable, articulate challengers: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of Lexington, a Democrat, and Republican businessman Matt Bevin of Louisville.
It was their first face-to-face meeting, and probably their only one until next year's Fancy Farm Picnic.
Democratic activists were more numerous and enthusiastic than I have seen them at Fancy Farm in years. Bevin had only a small group of supporters here, but he has support among Tea Party activists.
McConnell, Kentucky's longest-serving senator, was his usual calm, assured self, arriving just before the program started and leaving the stage before Bevin and Ed Marksberry of Owensboro, another Democratic challenger, spoke.
McConnell's appearance came after a tough month, including the embarrassment of having fellow Republican senators go around him to cut a deal with Democrats on confirmation of several Obama nominees to block changes in filibuster rules that McConnell has used to create gridlock in the Senate.
McConnell tried to frame his re-election as essential to stopping the "Obama agenda" — specifically health care reform and the administration's crackdown on environmentally destructive coal-mining practices.
"We're not just choosing who's going to represent Kentucky in the Senate," he said. "We're going to decide who's going to run the Senate."
What he didn't do was cite accomplishments, other than obstructing Obama and joining other Republicans in opposing an Army Corps of Engineers effort to restrict boating and fishing below Cumberland River dams.
Bevin seized on McConnell's lack of positive accomplishment, which could be a potent weapon in the hands of a smart Republican challenger.
"Mitch McConnell is known as mud-slinging Mitch, because the only thing he has to run on is destroying other people," Bevin said. "There is nothing in his 30-year history of voting that he's proud enough of to actually run on."
Attacking him from the right, Bevin accused McConnell of being too timid in opposing Obama's health-care law. "Be a man, stand up and put your money where your mouth is," he taunted.
Bevin chided McConnell for arrogance for leaving with his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, before Bevin spoke. Bevin invited his wife, Glenna, and their nine children, including three adopted from Africa, to join him onstage.
Bevin didn't give specifics about what kind of senator he would be. He also didn't criticize Grimes, saying there would be plenty of time for that after he beats McConnell in the primary.
Grimes also was poised and confident. She joked about McConnell's embarrassment on the filibuster showdown and his obstructionist tactics in what has been the least productive Congress in decades.
"There is a disease of dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and Sen. McConnell is at the center of it," she said. "As long as he remains in Washington, D.C., D.C. will stand for 'dysfunctional capital.'"
Grimes slammed McConnell for votes against raising the minimum wage and legislation on two women's issues: domestic violence and equal pay. She said she could do a better job of working across the aisle to get things done in Congress, which has record-low public approval ratings.
Both of these challengers showed they could do considerable damage to McConnell's reputation. But can they beat him?
Bevins has some personal wealth and Tea Party support. But, unlike Rand Paul with his famous father, Rep. Ron Paul, Bevins doesn't yet seem to have much grass-roots support or organization. He did little or nothing to solicit support at related GOP events this weekend in Western Kentucky.
Grimes has Democratic activists united, and she got strong endorsements on the Fancy Farm stage from Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen.
Given the party connections of her father, Jerry Lundergan, and national Democrats' desire to unseat McConnell, she shouldn't lack for money. But to win, Grimes will have to be more aggressive about framing the debate: she must make McConnell the issue, rather than allowing him to make Obama the issue.
McConnell's record makes him vulnerable to a candidate who can exploit it.
One thing is clear: McConnell is less popular than ever. Whether either of these two challengers can take him out in a 15-month marathon in the national spotlight will be fascinating to watch.
Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @tomeblen Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com