The three GOP candidates for governor will make their first major pitches to a record crowd of Kentucky Republicans at Saturday night's Lincoln Day dinner -- an event that could set the tone for each contender starting on the campaign trail to the May 22 primary election.
More than 1,500 Republicans, the most ever according to the Kentucky Republican Party, will attend the function at the Louisville International Convention Center. Many attendees are expected to prominently display their allegiance to one candidate or another with buttons and stickers.
"It will be tense" but no blood will be shed, said Larry Forgy, who faced Larry Hopkins at the 1991 Lincoln Day dinner during that year's GOP primary for governor.
"It turned out that lightning flashed, thunder rolled and a cricket was killed," he said of the '91 event.
For Gov. Ernie Fletcher, the evening represents another chance to make his case for a second term by outlining policy strides of his administration and showing that he remains above political rancor, said Forgy, who is backing Fletcher.
And the challengers -- former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, who will be speaking in her hometown, and Paducah businessman Billy Harper -- will make their inaugural appeals to the party's most engaged members.
It's a major stage from which they must urge Republicans to change course and pick a new nominee for the fall election, said Steve Nunn, another former GOP gubernatorial candidate and state representative who is backing Northup.
Northup, who last week sent letters to supporters asking for at least 500 of her backers to attend the event, yesterday made a move to seize momentum heading into Saturday's dinner by releasing the results of a poll commissioned by her campaign.
That survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies out of Washington, D.C., showed Northup tied with Fletcher across the state despite the fact that fewer Kentuckians polled said they know who she is.
"Oh, I think it will be the talk of the dinner," Cam Savage, Northup's campaign manager, said of the poll.
Since announcing her run, Northup has argued that she should be the nominee because Fletcher has been so tarnished by political struggles, such as the investigation into his administration's hiring practices.
Several points of Northup's poll appeared to reinforce that argument, including only 40 percent of Republicans saying that Fletcher deserves re-election and only 25 percent of general election voters saying they would choose Fletcher again.
"It is nearly impossible for Fletcher to win re-election," the pollster, Glen Bolger, wrote in a memo to Northup that was released to the media. Bolger's firm surveyed 500 likely Republican voters on Jan. 28 and 29, and then 500 likely general election voters. Both had margins of error of 4.38 percent.
Fletcher's campaign manager, Marty Ryall, called it a "diversion tactic."
"You can get a poll to say whatever you want it to say," he said. "At some point she is going to have to tell voters why she wants to be governor other than she thinks she can win."
Nunn -- the son of the late Louie Nunn, who was the last Republican governor before Fletcher --agreed, saying that "I think she needs a second punch" beyond just making a case against Fletcher.
Savage said Northup, who lost her re-election bid to Congress last fall, will spend much of her speech talking about "her credentials and biography," in addition to hinting at her vision for Kentucky.
Forgy, who ran for governor in 1991 and 1995, said Northup is on shaky ground by launching attacks on Fletcher's electability because she lost to Democrat John Yarmuth in November.
"If (Fletcher) stood up and said ... 'But John Yarmuth proved that she can't beat 'em,' that would take her down a notch," Forgy said. "But I don't think he's the type of person to use that wisecrack."
Instead, Fletcher's speech will focus on his accomplishments in office, Ryall said.
Meanwhile, Harper, a millionaire construction company owner, will continue to distance himself from both Fletcher and Northup by playing up his credentials as a business leader, said campaign manager Stan Pulliam.
"People will hear him talking about turning away from politics as usual, the need for change and for someone who's not a career politician to take over as CEO of government in Frankfort," Pulliam said.
Doors will open at 6 p.m. and dinner begins at 7 p.m.
Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor, will serve as keynote speaker.
Other prominent Kentucky GOP officials who will address the crowd, in addition to the gubernatorial candidates, include U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, state Senate President David Williams and Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan of Inez.
Read the memo on the poll.