FRANKFORT -- Ten candidates. Two party primary races. And just 16 weeks to sort it all out.
Now that the fields of Democratic and Republican contenders for governor are set, candidates can begin to assess their strategies, bolster their home bases of support and jockey for position.
Democratic voters will have seven choices on the May 22 ballot: two former lieutenant governors, the speaker of the House, the state treasurer, a Louisville millionaire, a Lexington lawyer and a Harlan County demolition contractor.
And Republicans will pick among the incumbent governor, a former congresswoman from Louisville and a Paducah millionaire.
"It's not only the numbers, but the quality of the candidates," said Secretary of State Trey Grayson immediately after yesterday's 4 p.m. filing deadline. "It will be an exciting four months."
It's not the most crowded field of governor candidates Kentucky has seen -- that distinction belongs to the 1979 race eventually won by Democrat John Y. Brown Jr. that attracted 13 candidates into the primaries.
But it's close.
And at the center of it all is Gov. Ernie Fletcher, the first Kentucky Republican governor since Louie Nunn left office in 1971.
Former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup and Paducah businessman Billy Harper both are arguing to Republican voters that Fletcher shouldn't be the party's nominee because he's been so politically crippled he can't beat the Democrats in November.
Public relations troubles for the governor include the 16-month-long hiring investigation that led to misdemeanor charges against Fletcher, broad pardons he issued to his aides in response to the probe, and a near-revolt by teachers in 2004 over the public employee health insurance coverage.
Fletcher not only has attracted two GOP opponents in his re-election bid, but also has become a focal point of the Democratic primary.
Former Democratic Gov. Julian Carroll, now a state senator, called Fletcher the inspiration for the crowded primary.
"What Ernie Fletcher has done -- his one major accomplishment -- has been to show strong proof of the fact that we need to change governors," Carroll said. "It's created this enormous excitement among Democrats."
Fletcher has shrugged off such criticism, saying in speeches that he has worked in such a "bipartisan manner that I've attracted criticism from both parties."
He also has been touting policy achievements, ranging from restructuring the Medicaid program to helping expand broadband Internet service to doling out record amounts of road funds approved by the legislature.
Another former governor, Democrat Paul Patton -- who is declining to pick any sides during this race -- said the campaign should be about Fletcher. Voters should assume they're electing a governor for eight years, said Patton, the first governor permitted under a 1992 law to succeed himself.
"Then you have a mid-term review," he said. "If he's done a good job, he should stay on."
The seven Democratic slates, meanwhile, have failed to strike fear among Republicans, said GOP Lt. Gov. Steve Pence.
"I think the Democrats have put a lot of the B players in there," said Pence, who has split with Fletcher. "They've got everyone in the race except a ball juggler and an elephant trainer."
A majority of the Democratic slates also contain a candidate who hails from Louisville. Gubernatorial hopefuls Bruce Lunsford, a millionaire businessman, and former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry both call the city home, as do John Y. Brown III -- the running mate of House Speaker Jody Richards -- and Irv Maze, the Jefferson County Attorney who is running with state Treasurer Jonathan Miller.
The Louisville metropolitan area accounts for more than 20 percent of all Democratic voters in the state.
"They're pretty much going to neuter Jefferson County," said former Democratic state Rep. Jack Coleman of Harrodsburg. "I don't think it's going to have the punch it used to."
Former state Sen. David Karem of Louisville said, of those, Henry and Maze are probably the two who are most well-known and have loyal supporters.
"Irv Maze's base is just very deep. He's been in political office and built up a base," Karem said. "And Steve Henry has visible name recognition."
A divided Louisville could mean that the race will be decided by voters in the more conservative regions of the state: Eastern and Western Kentucky.
Lunsford's lieutenant governor candidate Greg Stumbo -- the attorney general and a Prestonsburg native -- and former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear's running mate, state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo of Hazard, have support networks in eastern counties.
But Richards, the House Speaker and Bowling Green resident, is the closest candidate to Western Kentucky.
Carroll, the state's last Western Kentucky native to serve as governor, from 1974 to 1979, said the two candidates who can best appeal to conservative voters are Richards and Lunsford. He said he considers those two the "front-runners."
In the end, Carroll said, the candidate that shows himself to be "somewhat independent of both political parties" will be most successful "because that's where the great majority of voters are these days."not our biggest primary ever -- but close
Candidates running Democrats
1. Steven L. Beshear
2. Gatewood Galbraith
3. Stephen L. Henry
4. Otis "Bullman" Hensley
5. Bruce Lunsford
6. Jonathan Miller
7. Jody Richards
8. Ernie Fletcher
9. Billy Harper
10. Anne Northup