MIDDLESBORO — As U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell traveled through Eastern Kentucky on Thursday, he spoke repeatedly of the "famous visitor" who had been in the region the day before.
McConnell was referring to former President Bill Clinton who was in Hazard to lend his support — and popularity — to the senator's Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
In Corbin, Gray and Middlesboro, McConnell drew chuckles from the audience by reminding them that both the former president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had campaigned for his opponents in previous elections.
"Come on back, Clintons," McConnell said. "I'm happy to have you."
That dubious invitation came as McConnell embarked on a two-day bus tour of Eastern Kentucky's coal counties, campaigning in earnest during the U.S. Senate's August recess, trying to counter the attention and enthusiasm that Clinton brought to the area and hammering the message that a vote for Grimes is a vote for President Barack Obama.
With coal continuing its role as the dominant issue in the race, McConnell, at each stop, drew battle lines, trying to frame the election as a choice between Kentucky and Obama and accusing Grimes and Clinton of trying to fool Kentuckians.
"Do they think we're not smart enough to figure this out?" McConnell asked in Corbin. "Who do they think we are? These people are against everything we stand for. They're against our way of life, and we're going to stop them."
Grimes has taken great pains to avoid being tied to Obama, whose favorability rating was at 28 percent in the most recent Bluegrass Poll. In Hazard on Wednesday, Grimes declared both that she is a "Clinton Democrat" and that she is "the pro-coal candidate in this race."
McConnell clearly took note of both claims, having fun with both and telling his crowds — between 100 and 150 people at the first three stops — that Obama and Clinton Democrats are indistinguishable.
"There's not a dime's worth of difference between an Obama Democrat and a Clinton Democrat when it comes to coal," McConnell said. "We will not be fooled."
Jonathan Hurst, Grimes' campaign manager, said in a statement that after Clinton's full-house showing at the Hal Rogers Center in Hazard, McConnell was "struggling to play catch-up."
"His 30-year Washington record of failing to stand up for our coal miners and retirees and his shocking admission that he does not believe it's his job to bring jobs to Kentucky remain a serious drag on his campaign," Hurst said. "McConnell's 'Not My Job' bus tour is running on nothing but hot air."
Since retooling her message mid-summer to focus more on coal miners, Grimes and her surrogates have charged that by pledging to repeal Obama's health care law, McConnell is pledging to repeal an amendment that makes it easier for widows and survivors of miners who died of black lung to get their benefits.
McConnell told the Herald-Leader on Thursday that he agrees that the black-lung eligibility system needs to be improved, but "you don't need to destroy the whole American health care system to work on this black-lung issue."
McConnell was not without surrogates, enjoying Jimmy Rose singing Coal Keeps the Lights On in Middlesboro and introductions from U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers at each stop, where the House budget chairman reminded the crowds that "seniority matters."
"There's a reason why Obama wants McConnell out: because he's been stopping his regulations that's killing your jobs," Rogers said.
Of Grimes, Rogers charged, "She'll be a freshman in the minority, and freshmen don't even know where the bathroom is."
Rogers also hammered what McConnell called the "theme" of his campaign: Obama needs Grimes; Kentucky needs McConnell.
That was all voter William Butler of Knox County needed to hear.
After McConnell spoke in Gray, Butler told the Herald-Leader that he had recently had some pro-Obama house guests from Ohio, leading him to put a ban on the president's name in his house.
"I can't help the way you vote, but I don't want Obama's name mentioned in my house no more," Butler told his guests.
In Middlesboro, Glynna Brown said that Bell County was "absolutely McConnell territory," and she doesn't think that voters will view Grimes as more of an ally to coal than McConnell.
"I don't believe (voters) think that's true," Brown said. "I think we know that Mitch McConnell will be there for us because he always has been. And Mrs. Grimes is a new candidate, and I don't know what her stand is."
As McConnell courted the faithful, he reminded them time and again that both Bill and Hillary Clinton had campaigned against him six years ago.
"I know how to handle the Clintons," McConnell said.
Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.