HAZARD — As former President Bill Clinton stepped to the podium following Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' emphatic introduction, a coal miner whispered something to him.
The miner's advice, the former president told the audience packed inside the Hal Rogers Center, was "don't forget to remind people she's much prettier than Mitch McConnell is."
"You got that right!" a man in the audience shouted.
That was one of many contrasts Clinton tried to draw between McConnell, the U.S. Senate minority leader, and Grimes, the Democrat hoping to unseat him, as he traveled to a part of the state that has seen coal jobs evaporate and laid much of the blame on President Barack Obama.
Never miss a local story.
"I am a Clinton Democrat," Grimes shouted to the approving audience.
For Grimes to win in Eastern Kentucky, she'll need voters to believe that declaration and not that she is "Obama's Kentucky candidate," as McConnell and his allies have asserted repeatedly.
Grimes has endeavored from the start of her campaign to prove herself as a pro-coal Democrat.
On Wednesday, as Grimes and Clinton spoke, members of the United Mine Workers of America sat onstage behind them, serving as flesh-and-blood proof that Grimes had won the group's endorsement.
"Let's get the record straight, senator: I am the pro-coal candidate in this race," Grimes said, arguing that McConnell "hasn't saved or created one coal job" in his 30 years in office.
The Kentucky Coal Association has labeled that charge "unfair and inaccurate," arguing that McConnell has been on the front lines of fighting increased regulation of the coal industry by the Obama administration.
While Grimes pushed a similar refrain last year and into the spring, the numbers from the May 20 primary indicated McConnell and his allies, who have saturated the airwaves with ads tying Grimes to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had done significant damage to Grimes' efforts.
In Perry County, where Clinton and Grimes spoke after a morning fundraiser in Lexington that was expected to raise more than $250,000, 70 percent of Democrats voted for Grimes in the primary. The remaining 30 percent voted for another Democrat, even though the other candidates ran limited campaigns.
Seeing that danger, Grimes sought to rework her coal message, narrowing her focus to miner safety issues as she has tried to strike a populist tone.
With Clinton, the UMWA members and a poster of Grimes inside a coal mine, the Democratic candidate called on House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and other allies to help sell her message.
Stumbo, who called McConnell a "carpetbagger," warmed up the crowd by saying, "There's a difference between saying 'I'm for coal' and saying 'I'm for coal miners.'"
Clinton, who held an event in Hazard in 1999 as president, largely focused his remarks on jobs, waving a copy of Grimes' "jobs action plan."
Just as he did during a Louisville fundraiser in February, the former president endorsed the plan, which calls for increasing the minimum wage, eliminating tax benefits used by companies that move jobs overseas and ditching unspecified federal regulations on energy companies and small businesses. The plan does not offer specifics about how many jobs it would create, how much it would cost to implement and how Grimes would pay for it.
"It's good," said Clinton, who won Kentucky in both of his presidential elections in the 1990s. "I've read it. It's good."
Speaking in Lexington, Clinton said that McConnell never mentioned Grimes' name when they both spoke Saturday at the Fancy Farm picnic in Graves County.
"He kept acting like she was a clone of the White House," Clinton said. "That man thinks that Kentucky has stopped teaching arithmetic. The White House changes every four years. It will change in two years, and this is a six-year job."
Clinton criticized McConnell for not doing enough in his 30 years in Washington to stop the loss of jobs in the coal fields and to provide benefits for coal miners.
"He's actually hoping everybody will just check their brain at the door and forget you are hiring somebody to do something for the next years that he has not done for the last 30," Clinton said.
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore responded by saying that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency building in Washington is named for Clinton.
"It must not have occurred to Alison Lundergan Grimes that after Barack Obama declared the war on coal, he named the building tasked with executing his mission after the man she's bringing to Eastern Kentucky," Moore said in a statement.
After the event in Hazard, Clinton and Grimes worked the crowd outside, where even some campaign volunteers had been turned away because of the size of the crowd, some arriving on buses marked Muhlenberg County and West Kentucky.
Clinton's lingering popularity was on full display as more than one voter exclaimed to friends and family, "I'm never washing this hand again!"
"You shake hands with President Clinton — I mean, he's the man!" said Lysh Maggard, a retired union autoworker from London.
McConnell also knows the value of Eastern Kentucky to his re-election hopes. He was to set off Thursday morning on a two-day bus tour through the region with Rogers, the area's longtime congressman.
But on Wednesday, back inside the venue named for Rogers, Clinton closed by saying that Hazard had helped him remember small-town America 15 years ago in the twilight of his presidency.
"Now I'll give you a gift: Do the smart thing and send Alison to the Senate," Clinton said.