LOUISVILLE — Former President Bill Clinton declared "I love Kentucky" on Tuesday as he took the stage to a standing ovation from about 1,100 Democrats at a fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes.
"You've been good to me," Clinton said, noting that the Bluegrass State voted for him both times on his way to the White House in 1992 and 1996.
Grimes returned the love as she spoke before the former president and longtime family friend, declaring that Kentucky is "Clinton country."
Clinton sought to provide a boost to Grimes' campaign against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but his speech at the Galt House Hotel was at times more focused on complimenting Gov. Steve Beshear's implementation of President Barack Obama's controversial health care law.
A host of Democratic officials warmed up the crowd before Clinton and Grimes, who was elected secretary of state in 2011, took the stage. Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Louisville Cardinals fan, drew laughs by saying that McConnell is less popular in Kentucky than former Duke Blue Devil Christian Laettner.
"And they've both been in the state the same amount," Yarmuth said to laughs.
Laettner later responded on Twitter: "Wow!! What did @Team_Mitch do to deserve that type of hate? #theshot."
Republicans were quick to offer a history lesson, noting that the last few times Clinton came to Kentucky to stump for a Democratic candidate, the Republican prevailed in the end.
In 2008, both Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton campaigned for Democrat Bruce Lunsford, but he lost to McConnell by 6 percentage points. In 2010, Clinton campaigned with Attorney General Jack Conway the night before the election, but U.S. Sen. Rand Paul won by 12 percent over Conway.
"If history has taught national Democrats anything, it's that it has taught them nothing," Brook Hougesen, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.
"No matter how many times the Clintons come to Kentucky, it doesn't hide the fact that Alison Lundergan Grimes' very presence in the Senate would be another vote for the radical Obama agenda, including the war on coal," Hougesen said.
Grimes, who has made winning women voters a top priority of her campaign, introduced Clinton by saying that "as a strong Kentucky woman, our only female constitutional officer, it is with privilege and pride that I say welcome, Mr. President, to the commonwealth of Kentucky."
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, bracketed Clinton's visit by telling MSNBC on Monday he was concerned about Clinton's efforts on Grimes' behalf, again noting Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"I think workplace violence is a serious thing," Paul told MSNBC. "Think about your network. If the president of your network had relations with a 20-year-old girl who was there from college, I think the president of your network would be fired."
Grimes, who referred to the former president as "a friend, a mentor, an adviser," compared Kentucky's Senate race to the Wildcats' and Cardinals' respective basketball games over the weekend. Her battle against McConnell "will come down to just one point," she said.
"This race is a complete and total toss-up," Grimes said. "I'm counting on each and every one of you to be Russ Smith and Julius Randle," the stars of the Cards and Cats.
Clinton refused to pick a side in the state's basketball rivalry, saying he is a fan of both Louisville Coach Rick Pitino and Kentucky Coach John Calipari.
"I like both the coaches, both the teams, and I cheer for them both to win," Clinton said.
Grimes focused many of her remarks on raising the minimum wage and repeated many of the talking points she has used in rallies for her jobs plan. Clinton waved the plan around as he spoke.
Grimes continued her assault on McConnell, saying he is "out of touch, he is out of ideas and come November, with your help and support, he will be out of time."
The Grimes campaign declined to say how much money it raised from Clinton's appearance.
The president lauded Grimes, but his kindest words seemed to be for Beshear.
Citing the 12 years he spent as governor of Arkansas, Clinton pointed to Beshear and said, "Watching you handle this health care thing has reminded me why I loved that job."
Beshear spoke early in the program, saying that "Kentucky's on a roll these days," but that he and others are "doing it with one arm tied behind our backs."
"After 30 years of failed leadership, Kentucky deserves a senator that puts Kentucky and not Washington, D.C., first," Beshear said.
Greg Leichty, one of three other Democrats who are running limited campaigns against Grimes, said in a phone interview after the event that it is "outside of convention" for the former president to intervene in a state primary.
"I'm glad he came to Kentucky," Leichty said. "I'm glad he brought attention to the race, but I do contest his framing of what this election is about."
Leichty said he would rather the race be a "referendum on a broken campaign-finance system that we need to reform."
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.