The chunk of Kentucky that planted the seed for the 1994 Republican Revolution in Congress has emerged this fall as a potential national bellwether race for Democrats.
In the state's marquee congressional contest, two state senators are vying for the 2nd Congressional District seat in west-central Kentucky, left open by the retirement of Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Lewis of Cecilia.
National political observers have placed this battle among the most closely watched congressional races on Nov. 4.
Brett Guthrie, a three-term state senator from Bowling Green, is seeking to take the baton from Lewis and lock down the district for Republicans for the foreseeable future.
A West Point graduate with a career split between politics and his family's manufacturing business, Guthrie's résumé makes him a neat fit for the district that includes Fort Knox as well as medium-size cities Elizabethtown, Bowling Green and Owensboro.
But Democratic candidate David Boswell boasts his own set of strong credentials — such as serving for four years as the state's commissioner of agriculture — that could help him among the throngs of rural voters in the district. Boswell, by virtue of his 30-year career in politics, also began the summer as the better known candidate of the two.
"These two candidates are very similar, when you stop and look at them — their experiences in the Kentucky state Senate, committee assignments that they've worked on, their backgrounds," said Billy Ray Smith, a Bowling Green Democrat who also is a former state agriculture commissioner. And they're "very similar in a lot of their philosophies and political motivations."
In fact, it's difficult to figure out the candidates' party affiliations by their ads. Guthrie's commercials mention he is "conservative," but nowhere does he refer to being Republican. And one of the major tenets of his campaign is to bring change to Washington.
Boswell, meanwhile, argues that he is the best choice to "get America back on track," and he expresses his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the predominant theme in his commercials is that Bos well is "pro-life, pro-gun and against higher taxes."
That's exactly what Bos well or any Democrat running in the 2nd District should say, said Tommy Turner, the Democratic judge-executive of LaRue County.
"Dave Boswell has to let everyone in the 2nd District know that he does not fit the mold of the national Democrat stance, and he does not," Turner said. "Dave Boswell is a conservative Democrat. He has to let everyone feel that he is one of them."
Is it the economy?
Like many Democratic candidates across the country, Boswell is hoping to be part of a national landslide if people who are nervous about the souring economy vote against the party that controlled the White House for the last eight years and Congress for six of those eight.
Boswell said voters are more concerned about keeping their jobs than Congress spending $700 billion this month on a bailout plan to help banks and Wall Street firms.
"But every speech I give, I always bring up the $10 trillion national debt. It all plays together," Boswell said, adding that he would have opposed the bailout bill.
Guthrie also has criticized the bailout even though his GOP predecessor, Lewis, voted for it twice and Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell was a key supporter of the package.
In a statement to the Herald-Leader, Guthrie called the move "classic Congress."
"They did nothing for years, and now they write a big check," Guthrie said. "This is another example of why we need some people in Washington who understand what life is like out here in the real world."
The 2nd District was once solidly a Democratic region. But after Democratic U.S. Rep. William Natcher died early in 1994 after 41 years in Congress, Lewis surprised many to win the seat in a special election that May. His victory was a precursor to the 54-seat gain for Republicans that fall.
In this race, Guthrie hails from the solidly Republican corner of the district that includes Warren and Butler counties, while Boswell comes from the largest Democratic area — Daviess County. The deciding bloc of votes could come from the third major population area of the Elizabethtown-Radcliff corridor that includes Fort Knox.
"I think Brett Guthrie's going to win," said Hardin County Judge-Executive Harry Berry. "I think he has a leg up in this community, being a prior West Point graduate and having served on active duty."
Guthrie, 44, and a father of three, said his diverse background that took him from the military to the business world and then to the state Senate is what sets him apart.
"When I talk about experience, I didn't learn these issues that I'm dealing with from committees or task forces. I deal with these issues every day," he said.
Guthrie's family's company, Trace Die Cast Inc., employs 500 people in Bowling Green to produce aluminum castings for car parts.
At a Kentucky Farm Bureau Forum in August, Guthrie explained how Trace Die Cast often ships its products to a firm in Mexico before they eventually reach the Corvette plant in Bowling Green.
Even though the company doesn't run operations outside the United States, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has aired ads that accused Guthrie's company of shipping work to Mexico. That tactic, immediately decried by Guthrie and the Republican Party, has created the only controversial subplot so far in the surprisingly low-key campaign.
Boswell, a 59-year-old grandfather, has largely avoided the issue. Instead, he has touted his background running the state Agriculture Department and service in the state legislature — as well as the likelihood that the U.S. House will be controlled by Democrats for the next two years.
"I'd like to think that being in the majority would have a bearing — being able to produce and help curb the economic situation with the majority support," he said.
However, Boswell, also has steered clear of many Democratic figures from Washington. This summer, he declined to commit to voting to re-elect Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, and he has rarely talked about the party's presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
However, Boswell will get help Friday in Bowling Green from former President Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to win the presidential race in Kentucky.
Guthrie, on the other hand, has received fund-raising help from House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, GOP House whip Roy Blunt of Missouri and Vice President Dick Cheney on his way to collecting more than $1 million — twice as much as Boswell has collected this year.
Normally, that kind of financial advantage would have all but clinched the race for Guthrie. But the DCCC's investment, which could end up being as much as $840,000, has helped even the score.
The Rothenberg Political Report in Washington cited that as one of the reasons that Kentucky's 2nd District has landed on its list of 12 contests in which Democrats have a shot to win in normally conservative-leaning areas.
And if Boswell wins, the political publication's founder Stuart Rothenberg wrote last week, it would mean a big Election Night for Democrats across the country.