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Fancy Farm goes on, without the 2 main contenders

Sixteen years ago, then-vice presidential candidate Al Gore strode onto a wooden stage in far Western Kentucky to verbally spar with a rowdy crowd of political junkies.

And between jabbing at President George H.W. Bush and deflecting heckles, Gore took a moment to explain why he personally delivered the presidential campaign to the annual St. Jerome Parish picnic and the political craziness that comes with it.

”Fancy Farm represents something very special in the American political tradition,“ Gore said. ”Isn't it remarkable that a community like this one for 112 years has been able to play a key role in shaping the future of Kentucky and sometimes the future of this nation?“

Indeed, Saturday's 128th Fancy Farm picnic will continue the tradition of being Kentucky's most high profile political event, which kicks off the election season.

But Kentucky's role in national politics is far less significant now than it was when Gore made those remarks in 1992.

Last month, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama's campaign flirted with picnic organizers about a potential appearance by the Illinois senator, but eventually sent Obama to Orlando where he will address the National Urban League Saturday. It doesn't hurt that the event, where Republican presidential contender John McCain spoke Friday, is in Florida — one of 11 key swing states that could decide which man moves into the White House.

Kentucky used to be counted among those.

Even as recently as 2000, when Gore and George W. Bush squared off, Kentucky was considered by some media outlets as one of the ”heavyweight eight“ states that could decide the election, along with Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, New Jersey and, of course, Florida.

Now analysts and poll numbers show Kentucky solidly in McCain's column.

”Every state is important to John McCain but there are other states where he's going to have to be,“ said Cathy Bailey, Kentucky's chairwoman of the Republicans' Victory 2008 committee.

And many Kentucky Democrats are resigned to being relegated to spectators in this presidential race as Obama, who came to the state once during the spring primary, spends his time elsewhere.

”I would love to see him come to Kentucky — I really would — during this election and I hope he will,“ said Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, an Obama supporter. ”But you don't have to be a mental giant to look at the map and see that there are more fruitful opportunities in terms of winning the election“

So how did Kentucky, a state that has switched back and forth to vote for the winner of every presidential race since 1964, end up on the sidelines?

”It's the changing nature of the south and southern border states, which has not been favorable to Democrats and the movement of white, conservative Democrats to the Republican Party,“ said Bruce Oppenheimer, political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

He also noted that Kentucky and Tennessee have fewer African-American voters — from whom Obama has received strong support — than other Southern states that are considered in play, such as North Carolina and Virginia.

And Kentucky and Tennessee have taken a gradual turn to the right over the past 16 years, even when the Bill Clinton-Gore ticket racked up wins in both those states in the 1990s.

Clinton received fewer votes in Kentucky when he ran for re-election in 1996 than when he unseated Bush four years earlier and finished with less than half of the votes each time because of independent candidate Ross Perot.

”Kentucky is a conservative state,“ Oppenheimer said.

”I wouldn't put Kentucky or Tennessee out there with Utah and the really strong, overwhelmingly Republican states. But at least with presidential politics, Democrats will struggle in those states.“

Bailey, who is helping McCain raise money just as she did for Bush in 2000, said dynamics in Kentucky may change as both Obama and McCain start television advertising in the Bluegrass state.

”There might be a give of one or two points, but I think for the long term we have consistently led by double-digits for some time. For Kentucky, I don't see that narrowing to single digits.“

Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, who will talk about Obama during his Fancy Farm remarks on Saturday, said another factor that could have sunk Fancy Farm's chances of landing a member of a presidential ticket this year is that neither Obama nor McCain has picked a running mate yet. Both party conventions were bumped back a month to late August and early September.

In recent history, it has been the No. 2s on two Democratic tickets — Gore in '92 and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 — who have braved the rough-and-tumble Fancy Farm atmosphere.

Mongiardo, who like Chandler endorsed Obama before Kentucky's May 20 primary, downplayed some pundits' predictions that the Bluegrass state and its eight electoral college votes won't be highly sought-after in the presidential race.

”When I ran for U.S. Senate in '04, we weren't on that map either before Fancy Farm. I think I was behind somewhere around 27 points, so no one was looking at Kentucky,“ he said.

Mongiardo ended up losing to Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning by 1.4 points.

”There are a lot of things that can happen between Fancy Farm and November,“ Mongiardo said.