FANCY FARM — This time each year, I am often asked why I drive four hours to a tiny town and sit in sweltering heat to hear politicians make wisecracks and partisan crowds scream at them. It can't just be for the barbecue.
No, I tell them, it isn't just for the barbecue. But my share of the 9 tons of spicy pork and mutton, home-grown vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the good folks of St. Jerome Parish is always worth the drive.
I go to the Fancy Farm Picnic because, in this age of big-money lobbyists and TV attack ads, it is the only place where Kentucky's most powerful politicians must face voters from both sides, the news media and each other in a setting they can't control.
The 134th annual picnic, held Saturday, did not disappoint. And the stars of the show — Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — performed well under pressure.
Partisan activists come in from all over the region to crowd under a metal roof — Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other — wave signs, cheer their candidates and boo their opponents. This year's crowd was reportedly the biggest in history, but it did a better job than usual of heeding organizers' pleas for civility.
The main attraction was the Senate race, because it is the first time in decades that Democrats have a shot at beating the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history.
Polls show McConnell and Grimes essentially tied with an undecided electorate of less than 10 percent.
McConnell is an old pro on the Fancy Farm stump, and he focused his remarks on trying to paint Grimes as an inexperienced novice and puppet of liberals and President Barack Obama. He likened her lack of experience for high office to that of Obama, who ran for the presidency while in his first term as a senator from Illinois.
"He was only two years into his first job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?" McConnell said of Obama. "He really didn't have any qualifications at all. Sound familiar?"
I had to wonder if McConnell's comments made his Republican colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, squirm in his seat on the stage. Paul, an eye surgeon, was elected in 2010 with no previous government experience, and he is now actively pursuing presidential ambitions.
Grimes, 35, was 6 years old when McConnell, 72, first took office in 1985. But she showed no respect for her elder. She accused him of being a Washington obstructionist who is out of touch with working Kentuckians and their needs. She said creating jobs, raising the minimum wage and legislation requiring equal pay for women would be her priorities.
Will Fancy Farm change the Senate race? Probably not, because neither candidate made any serious missteps. As the old saying goes, a good Fancy Farm performance doesn't really help a candidate, but a bad performance can ruin a campaign.
The picnic gave an early preview of next year's governor's race, with Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway promoting his candidacy and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer making his bid official.
State Auditor Adam Edelen, who decided against running for governor next year, is still one of the Democrats' best stump speakers and clearly sees a future for himself in politics. Appearances by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo made people wonder if they are eyeing bigger ambitions.
Sure, Fancy Farm might be nothing more than a lot of political theater packaged with great food. But it sure beats TV attack ads.