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Voters like only their pork pie, no one else's

Beyond the usual campaign clutter in their dueling commercials, Kentucky's U.S. Senate candidates have engaged each other in a wonkish policy debate over federal spending.

One politician's pork is what another considers bringing home the bacon.

Last week, Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford commandeered the rhetoric of GOP presidential candidate John McCain to make an argument that U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is part of the "big-spending, me-first, country-second crowd," as McCain put it.

However, McCain, a staunch opponent of earmarks, hasn't singled out McConnell during this election.

Lunsford's ad used the example that McConnell voted for the now-infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, a $398 million bridge to link the town of Ketchikan to its airport. It has become the poster-project for wasteful earmarks.

Lawmakers use earmarks to tag hundreds of millions of dollars for specific programs and projects, usually in their home states. McConnell argued in last weekend's Senate debate that if Congress doesn't decide how that discretionary money is divvied up, the president's administration will do it — most likely with less input from people in the state.

Still, McConnell conceded that in the case of Alaska's bridge to nowhere, he wouldn't mind having a do-over.

"There certainly have been some bad earmarks. If I had that vote to cast over, I would cast it differently," he told the Herald-Leader.

But arguing over the merits of securing funding for Kentucky universities and projects is a debate McConnell, the Republican U.S. Senate leader, says he is more than happy to have.

"It's easy to sort of denigrate earmarks as a category, and I think we need to talk specifically," McConnell said.

Most recently, he has aired a commercial featuring Karen Hall, a drug prevention program director with Comprehend Inc.'s Regional Prevention Center in Maysville.

Hall, in the ad, talks about how McConnell helped secure $250,000 in federal funds to help the non-profit corporation expand its drug abuse prevention programs. McConnell tagged those funds for the center in the 2001 homeland security appropriations bill.

All this feeds into McConnell's central theme of his re-election bid: that he has the clout to bring hundreds of millions in federal funds to Kentucky.

"It's a combination of being the Republican leader of the Senate, and being a senior member of the Senate and a senior member of the appropriations committee," McConnell said. He has repeatedly argued that electing Lunsford as a freshman, even in the majority party, would result in a "dramatic reduction" in the ability to divert funds to Kentucky.

Over the years, McConnell has secured billions of dollars for Kentucky-based projects. Sometimes, taxpayer groups have criticized him for earmarks, such as the $9 million he helped tag for a new chapel at Fort Campbell last year or $500,000 for energy research that benefited Pure Energy Corp. of Louisville in 2000. Both were cited as examples in the Citizens Against Government Waste's annual "Pork Book" reports.

But McConnell says he stands behind every project and program he's fought to help fund, particularly for universities — more than $36 million for research in 2007 for Kentucky colleges — and the removal of chemical weapons from the Blue Grass Army Depot.

"I've gotten $45 million in agriculture research projects over the last 10 years," McConnell added. "That money would have gone somewhere else."

In 2007, the Senate changed the law to require senators who request earmarks to put their name next to the project, thereby increasing transparency.

McConnell said he would support any further reforms to heighten disclosure of the budget process because he said he's proud of the efforts he's made. In fact, he said his frustration is that Kentucky newspapers don't make a big enough deal out of the money he diverts to the state, which his office often touts in press releases.

"We announce what we're doing all along the way," he said.

Lunsford couldn't cite a McConnell-secured earmark for Kentucky with which to quibble. But he did mention $1.7 million worth of funding in the 1999 and 2000 foreign operations spending bill that went toward a conservation program in the Galapagos Islands named after McConnell.

Lunsford's over-arching message, though difficult to pinpoint at times, has become that McConnell's penchant for pet projects has contributed to the nation's precarious financial position.

"There is no CEO in America that could have run their company for six years — probably no more than two — as badly as Mitch McConnell and George Bush have run this country ... and kept their jobs," Lunsford said. "Nearly $10 trillion in debt. A health care system that has nearly 50 million people uninsured, an energy crisis."

That may be a case that's "a little bit tougher" to make to voters even though the term "earmarks" has a negative connotation these days, said Joe Gershtenson, director of the Kentucky Institute of Public Governance and Civic Engagement at Eastern Kentucky University.

"People don't like Congress but they like their own member of Congress. It's the same with earmarks," he said. "We don't like earmarks but we like the money coming to our state and to our district."