Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky's first sitting governor to face a strong primary challenge for his re-election, tonight will take the stage behind one of the biggest bully pulpits the governor's position offers: the State of the Commonwealth Address.
Fletcher's speech, which will be televised statewide, offers the pomp and circumstance similar to the U.S. president's State of the Union Address. It attracts dignitaries, lawmakers and, of course, the media to the state House chambers to hear the governor's broad vision for Kentucky.
"Every step from here in has an increasing degree of importance," said state Rep. C.B. Embry, a Morgantown Republican who has declined to take sides in the GOP primary for governor. "He needs to have a positive program. He needs some good things to appeal to the general public."
The May 22 GOP primary features Fletcher, former Louisville congresswoman Anne Northup and Paducah businessman Billy Harper.
Fletcher recently has begun to harness some of the advantages of incumbency. Last week, he held press conferences to announce proposals to give tax breaks to families of active military personnel as well as credits for landowners who allow public access for hunting and fishing.
In addition, he has been traveling the state asking for input at town hall meetings for ways to spend an estimated $237 million budget surplus, even though the General Assembly already included an automatic provision that divvies up that money.
Those plans Fletcher announced caused one of his primary opponents, Northup, to question the timing.
"There's a loss of confidence in the public when there are election year proposals that haven't been part of a broader package or proposed in the past," she told the Herald-Leader last week.
Fletcher's last State of the Commonwealth Address was largely overshadowed by the position he took during the speech on "intelligent design." Fletcher said he thought schools should choose to teach the argument, which says that all life stems from and can be explained by a supernatural force.
This time, Fletcher has a chance to connect with a wide audience and garner positive headlines at a crucial time for him politically -- if he nails the speech, said Republican Sen. Dan Seum of Louisville, who also is remaining neutral.
"If he handles that well, that would certainly be a plus," Seum said. And many Republicans are eager to see whether Fletcher chooses to make promises with money the state doesn't have, said another uncommitted GOP lawmaker, Rep. Jim DeCesare of Bowling Green.
"If the governor comes out with a big spending plan, that's going to turn off a lot of conservatives," he said. "So it depends on which direction he goes."
Read Pol Watchers and Kentucky.com Tuesday night for live blogging from the governor's address. Watch for audio clips and full text of the State of the Commonwealth Address.