CORBIN — Like polite family members at an annual reunion, Kentucky Republicans had dinner together at the 71st Lincoln Day Dinner Saturday night, and any divisiveness wasn't aired.
At the annual event's head table were: Sen. Jim Bunning and his wife, Mary; Abraham Lincoln impersonator Dennis Boggs of Nashville; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers. David Williams, president of the Kentucky Senate who has previously hinted that he's interested in running for Bunning's seat, sat at a nearby table.
In recent months, Republican leaders have been sending not-so-subtle messages to Bunning that they would like for him to retire. Bunning, 77, is considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent running for re-election next year.
But at the dinner, unity was the theme, and neither Bunning nor McConnell addressed the squabble.
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Bunning drew warm applause when he stepped to the podium. He told the crowd he appreciated coming to the Fifth District and having had the district's support in three statewide races.
"I hope I can count on your support when I run in 2010," he said, adding that he believes in core conservative values and is not a puppet on a string.
"I am my own man. I believe in core conservative values. That is why I am running for a third term in the U.S. Senate. I hope you will support me."
McConnell didn't discuss the Senate race directly, instead choosing to talk about last year's campaign, which he said was a challenge, although he ended up carrying 87 of Kentucky's 120 counties.
"In January, I surpassed Wendell Ford as longest-service senator from Kentucky," he said.
Albey Brock, the GOP judge-executive in nearby Bell County, said he saw no evidence of a rift between the senators.
"They're adhering to Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak evil of another Republican," Brock said.
Bunning has won election to the Senate twice, both times by razor-thin margins. He most recently defeated Democrat Daniel Mongiardo in 2004 — a year kind to Republicans — but only by some 27,000 votes after a nasty campaign marked by smears on both sides.
Mongiardo already has announced that he intends to run against Bunning again next year. And other prominent Democrats — including Attorney General Jack Conway and state Auditor Crit Luallen — also are considering entering the race.
In his address to the crowd of about 450, Williams said he was proud to say he campaigned for Bunning in 2004. And in the senatorial race in 2010, "I plan to be on that bus. It remains to be seen in what capacity. But I can assure you that if the Republican Party is to keep that seat, we're all going to be on that bus."
Secretary of State Trey Grayson and Bowling Green eye surgeon Rand Paul also are potential GOP candidates. However, both have said they don't plan to enter the race unless Bunning withdraws.
Kentucky GOP stalwart Larry Forgy, a two-time gubernatorial candidate, accused McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas of trying to force Bunning out of his re-election campaign. Forgy, an ardent Bunning supporter, predicted that it will not work.
"You've seen chickens in a barnyard pecking away at another chicken? Well, they're picking on a strong, stringy old rooster," Forgy said.