Attorney General Jack Conway's public appearance on April 10 had a different flavor from an average Saturday campaigning for the U.S. Senate Democratic primary.
Instead of shaking hands at a fast-food joint, he stood in the winner's circle at Keeneland, shaking the No. 3 saddle cloth of his horse, Stately Victor, after his improbable win at odds of 40-1 in the Blue Grass Stakes. Instead of kissing babies, he kissed his horse's brown nose. Instead of outlining his plan to improve education, he told reporters about the thrill of having a horse in the Kentucky Derby.
Most campaign strategists would kill for the winner's circle image, yet the scene is strangely complicated for Conway.
His education at Duke University and George Washington University law school, obvious smarts and classic good looks would appear to wrap into a perfect candidate package, one that has been embraced by party elders in Kentucky and Washington, D.C.
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But in political polls, he has only just started to catch up with Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, who has expertly cast Conway into the "elite" corner of people who live in big cities, own racehorses and support the federal health care bill.
Conway's odds in the U.S. Senate race are not as long as Stately Victor's will be in the Derby. He thinks he'll win because Kentucky voters want a "real Democrat" in the race, someone who stands up for better health care and more jobs without splitting Kentucky in an urban versus rural divide, which he accuses Mongiardo of doing.
Still, the question remains whether he has the political skills to overcome Mongiardo's "silver spoon" rhetoric and more conservative voters outside the Golden Triangle who seem increasingly skeptical about President Barack Obama and the direction of the Democratic Party.
"In politics, there's perception and reality, and the reality is that Jack would be a very good U.S. senator," said former Gov. Paul Patton, one of Conway's first bosses who supports him in the race. "It's up to him to straighten up the perception."
On the campaign trail, Conway has tried to blunt Mongiardo's criticisms by talking about his father's roots in rural Union County.
"I don't know what he means by the silver-spoon candidate," Conway said in a recent interview. "Yes, my father achieved some success, but I'll never forget where I came from — I was born in a one-bedroom apartment and had parents who instilled in me the value of hard work.
"He (Mongiardo) can take that silver spoon and use it to buy some crème brûlées," a reference to Mongiardo's $33,000 in travel expenses as lieutenant governor, including some dinners that ended with crème brûlée. Conway has spent $7,247 on travel since becoming attorney general in late 2007.
The elder Conway taught school and coached football while attending the University of Louisville law school at night; he later became a successful lawyer and developer.
Jack Conway attended St. Xavier High School, then he chose Duke University because of its public policy school.
Shortly after graduating from law school, he joined the new administration of then-Gov. Patton, soon becoming the deputy cabinet secretary under Crit Luallen, who calls him "one of the most intellectually gifted people" she knows.
Conway worked on a revision of the criminal justice code and was an author of Patton's historic higher education reform, which created the state's independent community college system and attempted to turn the University of Kentucky and U of L into first-rank research schools.
"He was pretty well in the center of discussion on all the major topics in the governor's office," Patton said. "Jack has a calming demeanor in discussion and policy debates. He can get attention and respect pretty quickly."
In 2002, Conway resigned from Patton's administration to run against U.S. Rep Anne Northup. Shortly afterward, Patton admitted to an extramarital affair. While Conway came close to Northup, his defeat was largely blamed on Patton's scandal.
He practiced law with his father until 2007, when he easily beat Republican state Rep. Stan Lee for the attorney general's spot.
In 21/2 years in that job, Conway made cyber-crime his signature issue, creating a special cyber-crimes unit that he says has helped take 55,000 images of child pornography off the Internet. Conway also pressed Medicaid fraud prosecutions and set up the state's first prescription drug abuse task force.
Still, as early as 2008, Conway was eyeing a run against U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, who was seen as vulnerable. Bunning decided last summer not to seek re-election.
Conway soon amassed support from Democratic Party elders, including now Auditor Crit Luallen, who is the godmother to his 8-month-old daughter, Eva Louise. His wife, Elizabeth, is a communications specialist for Brown-Forman Corp.
Conway is comfortable with the establishment's embrace; he often talks about taking back the seat of former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford, who made an impression on him as a 17-year-old visitor to Washington, D.C. Ford's granddaughter Betsy Dexter is the campaign's political director.
Conway is also supported by U.S. Reps. Ben Chandler and John Yarmuth; Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson; and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who, like Mongiardo, comes from Eastern Kentucky.
The primary campaign got ugly right away.
At the annual Fancy Farm political picnic last summer, Conway's attempts to slough off his metropolitan image by calling himself a "tough son of a bitch" backfired miserably when Mongiardo's camp backed him into an apology for using profanity at the church-sponsored event.
His Duke degree got more attention from Mongiardo during March Madness. Mongiardo's campaign described it as good-natured ribbing, but Conway describes it as "more like a middle school lunchroom fight."
Since then, the two campaigns have routinely traded accusations and insults.
Conway has had to defend more than $60,000 in campaign contributions from employees of three energy companies — Atmos Energy; and Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities, both owned by E.On US LLC — that had rate cases before the Public Service Commission in 2008. Conway, who as attorney general must represent taxpayers' interests in those cases, said he did not feel he had to recuse himself in those cases.
His campaign says Conway has helped reduce requested rate increases in those cases and 15 others to the tune of $100 million.
But Mongiardo has now called on Conway to release the names of all people associated with LG&E or KU who made donations since Jan. 1. This time, the companies are asking for combined rate hikes of $262 million.
No natural 'homestyle'
Conway has a clear fund-raising advantage. He's raised $2.5 million for the campaign, which he's using in television ads to even out what he says is Mongiardo's higher name recognition in the state. Of all his contributions, he's received the largest percentage from other lawyers, and about $500,000 from out-of-state contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But out on the campaign trail, Conway doesn't have a natural "homestyle," a kind of ease with people, says Scott Lasley, a political science professor at Western Kentucky University.
"It's not as natural for him," Lasley said. "But I don't think you can dismiss him — he's very talented, very bright and very articulate."
During a recent visit to Winchester, Conway shook hands, chatted and laughed with the people he met. He admits he's had to learn to get in other people's space.
Conway and Mongiardo's platforms have some similarities: Both support early childhood education initiatives and development of coal-to-liquid plants.
Conway says he would not support the federal cap-and-trade bill to limit carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants, and he would judge future efforts by whether they hurt Kentucky coal and protect the state's advantage of cheap electricity.
He walks an uneasy line between pleasing the politically powerful coal industry and urban environmentalists who decry mountaintop-removal mining. "We need to mine coal as responsibly as possible," he says.
But the issue of health care has become the biggest dividing line in the campaign. Mongiardo criticized the federal bill for not doing enough to lower costs and raise quality; Conway announced his support and even made a commercial about his refusal to follow other state attorneys general who have said they will sue to stop it.
"It was time to stand up and become a Democrat," Conway says of his embrace of the bill. "It's not a perfect bill ... but once people see the sky isn't falling ... I think Democrats are going to be fine."
Conway, who is pro-choice but against gay marriage, has taken other pages from the Obama playbook, most recently supporting legislation to regulate Wall Street banks, in contrast to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
"I am not going to run a campaign that puts urban versus rural, that pits the Bluegrass against Northern Kentucky, that pits east versus west," Conway said. "We're all in this together, whether you're talking about a farmer in my father's home county of Union, or a coal miner in Daniel Mongiardo's hometown of Hazard or a displaced Ford worker in Louisville. The needs are essentially the same."