FANCY FARM — Kentucky politicians have learned the hard way that the best strategy for speakers at the Fancy Farm Picnic is to have a point, make it forcefully, zing your opponent with a memorable line — and don't screw up.
At this annual church barbecue that begins Kentucky's fall election season, the biggest sin of all is to say or do something the other side can use like a club to beat you senseless.
So how did this year's three gubernatorial slates do?
Gov. Steve Beshear's strategy was to stay above the fray. He has done a decent job managing the state through tough times, and he enjoys a huge lead in the polls over his Republican challenger, state Senate President David Williams, and independent Gatewood Galbraith.
Neither Beshear nor his running mate, former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, mentioned their challengers.
Just home from a week visiting Kentucky troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, Beshear wore a blue Kentucky National Guard shirt. Saying he wanted to talk about something more important than partisan politics, Beshear used almost all of his allotted eight minutes to praise the troops, which all but silenced the GOP jeering section.
It was a brilliant strategy — for two or three minutes. But as Beshear went on and on, introducing a soldier's grandparents and asking the audience to applaud all veterans, even some of his supporters rolled their eyes.
Perhaps sensing that Beshear had overplayed his hand, Galbraith delivered a withering response. Instead of talking about solutions for Kentucky's problems, he said, "You go over there and try to hide behind the bodies of our young men and women in the military. I was highly offended" by the speech.
Galbraith said the only reason Beshear went to the Middle East was because he had failed to accompany President Barack Obama to Fort Campbell to congratulate the Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden. "It's like trying to buy a room full of flowers for your girl after you've been caught cheating," he said.
Galbraith's takedown was over the top, but he is always over the top. That is why the perennial candidate has never won an election and probably never will.
Otherwise, Galbraith courted Tea Party voters by calling for limited government, liberal voters by criticizing mountaintop-removal coal mining and moderate voters by blaming bitter partisanship for government gridlock. He said only an independent executive could bring both parties together.
It would have been a more powerful message coming from a different candidate. Still, Galbraith is likely to take a lot of conservative votes away from Williams, and even some away from pro-coal Beshear.
Because Williams is trailing so badly, he had little choice but to attack Beshear, despite limited ammunition. At the same time, though, Williams is trying to counter perhaps his biggest liability, summed up in his nickname, "The Bully from Burkesville." Williams is brilliant, but his abrasive style and arrogant demeanor turn off Republicans as well as Democrats.
His choice of running mate, former University of Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer, was supposed to help his popularity. But Farmer has been a magnet for controversy, from his free-spending ways as agriculture commissioner to his wife suing him for divorce during the campaign.
Farmer began his own remarks by sounding as if he was going to talk about his divorce. But the punch line was this: "David Williams is actually a pretty good guy!" That's right: My running mate is not a jerk!
John Kemper, the Republican candidate for auditor, implied the inevitability of Williams' loss by questioning how his own opponent, Democrat Adam Edelen, could be a truly independent auditor as Beshear's former chief of staff.
Abramson delivered a solid speech, although he seemed out of his element and stumbled over some Western Kentucky geography.
Galbraith's running mate, Dea Riley, said their ticket was hoping to get a lot of support from women. "I'm even thinking Richie's wife might vote for me," she said.