LOUISVILLE - Amid dueling bands of volunteers scrambling to slap the brand of their candidate on Republicans' lapels, a fiery Gov. Ernie Fletcher laid out his case for re-election, while more reserved Anne Northup and Billy Harper urged change.
More than 1,500 Republicans came out to Louisville's International Convention Center to get their first glimpse of all three GOP gubernatorial candidates on stage together, as well as to see presidential hopeful Mitt Romney at the annual Lincoln Day Dinner, a fund-raiser for the Kentucky Republican Party.
Support of the crowd was split between Northup, speaking in her hometown, and Fletcher. They offered polite applause for Harper.
"It's a divided room, you can tell that," said Bobby Clue, a Republican activist and state Vehicle Enforcement Agency employee.
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"It's like West Side Story around here," he added, snapping his fingers in rhythm for effect.
Fletcher, giving one of his most demonstrative performances, bounded up the steps to the stage. He touched on a few highlights of his administration: the Read to Achieve initiative for young students; doling out the most money for roads in state history; and the General Assembly's passage of a bill allowing police to pull over drivers for not wearing a seat belt.
"We've been a minority for so long, we may have forgotten that when you have to govern, you've got to make tough decisions," he said.
Then, in an effort to appeal to Republicans who have previously grumbled about being disappointed with lack of contact with the first GOP administration in 32 years, he apologized "for not taking your phone calls."
"We'll try to make up for that. But I want you to focus on the bigger things," he said. "We're the party of Lincoln."
Massachusetts National Committeeman Ron Kaufman approached Fletcher after the dinner, asking "Who was that guy up there? That was awesome."
"It's the same guy," Fletcher responded. "It's campaign season, you know."
Northup, the former congresswoman from Louisville, stumbled at several points during her speech, which focused on her background and entrance into politics 20 years ago as a state House candidate. She also again hit on her only campaign theme so far: to replace Fletcher as the nominee because he's been too damaged by political troubles. "The three of us stand before you not as bitter enemies but rather as members of the same party who all share the same goal: to retain control of the governor's office this November," she said. "It will make little sense to choose a nominee who has virtually no chance to win in the fall."
And Harper, who has run TV campaign ads on education and taxes, mentioned Ronald Reagan's "11th commandment," not to speak ill of another Republican. "It's time we became a great state," he said. "In this race, it's two politicians and a businessman."
But perhaps even more jockeying occurred off stage.
Fletcher campaign volunteers -- mostly young administration aides and college Republicans clad in pressed slacks and sport coats -- offered stickers to the attendees.
Northup and running mate Jeff Hoover recruited several dozen college Republican volunteers in blue Northup-Hoover long-sleeved T-shirts to hand out campaign stickers and placards. On the 1,560 chairs, campaign staffers placed copies of a poll memo released earlier this week that said Fletcher "is simply unelectable."
Harper's campaign staff doled out stickers saying only, "I support a positive campaign."
Other activists and officials referred to themselves as "Switzerland." "I am going to remain neutral," said Erwin Roberts, a Louisville lawyer and Fletcher's former Personnel Cabinet secretary. "I hope it's competitive, but not so contentious."
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, gave a broad speech suggesting that the country aggressively confront Iran and touting the need for bold policies, such as energy independence, to keep the United States on the cutting edge.
"The last thing we want is to become the France of the 21st century," he said.
Most of last night's buzz focused on the governor's race.
The room visibly tensed up when U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning addressed it head on, saying that although Fletcher and Harper are friends, "I think Anne Northup is the best suited to lead our party."
Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has declined to endorse, said he knew people wanted to find out whom he'd support.
"So ladies and gentlemen, it's going to be the Indianapolis Colts," he said, referring to today's Super Bowl.
The Republican gubernatorial candidates spoke after the Herald-Leader's deadline. Find a report on the speeches at Kentucky.com