TOMPKINSVILLE — The first sign welcomes drivers to Monroe County. The rest of them welcome travelers to a place that doesn't show up on any map of Kentucky: Comer Country.
The signs are homemade, the result of a project by the local elementary school, but they all point to Tuesday's big announcement that hometown boy James Comer, the state's commissioner of agriculture, has officially entered the race for governor.
Despite letting everyone know from the Fancy Farm picnic stage on Aug. 2 that he would seek the Republican nomination for governor, Comer didn't make it official until 4:28 p.m. Monday, when he filed his letter of intent to run with the secretary of state's office. He named state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, as his running mate and recently retired coal magnate Nick Carter as his campaign chairman.
But for Comer and his hometown, the real show starts at 10 a.m. CDT Tuesday on the town square.
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The Tompkinsville Inn, its sign reading "WELCOME TO TEAM COMER COUNTRY," is booked solid. General manager Janie Strode said she wishes she "had a dollar for every person I had to turn away."
"You're going to see a crowd like you've never seen before," Comer told the Herald-Leader in an interview over the weekend. "I want to demonstrate something that we haven't seen in Republican gubernatorial campaigns."
While Comer was preparing for a late afternoon dress rehearsal, excitement was bubbling all over this small town on Monday.
Comer and his allies are expecting upwards of 1,000 people from all over Kentucky — folks who are part of the statewide network Comer has been building since he was a child in Future Farmers of America.
"We want to start the campaign in a place where people know me best," Comer said.
On Monday afternoon, homemade signs — "Uncle Sam wants you to support James Comer!" and "Welcome home Commissioner Comer" — lined the main road into town and windows of businesses near the courthouse.
Several women worked on the flowers on one side of the courthouse while a stage, where Comer will begin his push for the governor's mansion, was erected around back.
On the green grass behind the stage lay the banner that will hang behind Comer on Tuesday morning: "For all Kentuckians."
Rodney Biggerstaff, who owns a framing and jewelry store downtown, said Comer's run for governor is inspiring to the town.
"I noticed one of them (signs) says 'Small town, big dreams,'" Biggerstaff said. "A guy could come out of a little bitty town like this and do a lot of good."
Tommy Willett, the Monroe County judge-executive who has known Comer "ever since he was a small child," said volunteers have spent the last few days giving the town a "facelift" — painting, mowing the grass and "anything they can do to make our county look better."
"It's just been an overwhelming outpouring of community pride," Willett said. "We're expecting at least 2,000, at least. It's the biggest thing that's happened to this town and county that I can ever remember."
Eric Emberton, who works at Hidden Hills Country Club, said his boss was offering employees paid time off to attend Comer's speech.
Comer said the message that will come from the anticipated show of energy and organization should answer any questions Kentuckians might have about whether he will have the resources and support to win.
"It's going to be something that I think people are going to leave inspired," Comer said. "They're going to leave thinking this is a ticket that can win."
To that end, Comer isn't just putting on a big show. He's also bringing some big guns to his hometown.
Coal magnate Joe Craft and his fiancée, Kelly Knight, will be joining Comer and McDaniel on stage, speaking on his behalf and serving as honorary campaign chairs going forward.
Craft, Kentucky's king of coal, and Knight, an ambassador to the United Nations under former President George W. Bush, are regarded nationally as two of the most prominent and prolific Republican fundraisers in the country, serving as both state and national finance chairs for 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Comer is counting on them to help him cut into the overwhelming financial advantage enjoyed by former Louisville metro councilman Hal Heiner, the only other Republican in the race and a candidate who has already put $4.2 million of his own money in the race.
"Presidential candidates fly to Kentucky to talk to Joe and Kelly, so that says a lot about their ability to raise money," Comer said. "They're going to be all-in for me in this campaign."
Joe Burgan, Heiner's campaign manager, said Monday that Heiner "has spent the last six months crossing the state, meeting with tens of thousands of Kentucky voters."
"He will continue to engage Kentuckians in a mature conversation about the future of our commonwealth, and why his experience in business and job attraction uniquely qualifies him to lead Kentucky into an era of unprecedented economic growth," Burgan said.
Comer said Sunday that he has been "unimpressed" by Heiner's campaign, and downplayed the idea that Heiner has been successful in building much of a statewide organization.
"I don't think he has a head-start at all," Comer said. "You're going to see a turnout on Tuesday that he could spend the entire $4.2 million that he's put into the campaign and not get a crowd like that."