PAINTSVILLE — Campaigning in the state's poorest region, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell did not mention the nation's sagging economy or his recent vote for a $700 billion rescue of the financial industry during a Thursday speech to a chamber of commerce.
Afterward, McConnell said he was not deliberately ducking the issue.
"Sometimes it comes up and sometimes it doesn't," he said. "But, no, there's no particular reason to avoid it."
Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, speaking at the Madison County Fairgrounds to more than 300 activists Thursday night, said replacing Republicans like McConnell is a first step toward changing policies that he says have led into the current state of economic turmoil.
"Maybe not since Franklin Delano Roosevelt do we need the Democratic agenda more than we do right now," he said, one of a few times he sparked applause during his nine-minute remarks.
While speaking to reporters, McConnell defended his vote for the plan to rescue the financial industry. As GOP leader, he played a visible role in pushing the plan through the Senate.
"There was a lot of bipartisan feeling that doing nothing was not an option," he said. "Nor did any of us think that passing it would be an instant cure."
Lunsford has said he would have been hard-pressed to vote for the bailout plan.
Instead of talking about the economy, McConnell touted his clout as Senate Republican leader.
He pointed to his seniority, accumulated over four terms, in what has become a major theme in his toughest re-election fight. This campaign comes amid a national economic crisis and dismal approval ratings for President Bush, his longtime ally.
McConnell drew applause from the business crowd when taking credit for bringing $500 million in federal funding back to the state last year. He said that amount towers over the sums delivered by freshman Senate Democrats.
"Just measuring clout related to state-specific issues, this would be a pretty tough trade — you trade me in for a rookie," he told the crowd.
In Madison County, Lunsford accused McConnell of overstating his appropriating prowess and said any money he funnels to Kentucky has been dwarfed by the burden Kentuckians must bear to pay for the Iraq war and financial rescue.
"Mitch McConnell couldn't be any more out of touch with Kentucky than if he were Sarah Palin," Lunsford said. "He's lost his way."
During the chamber of commerce event, McConnell won praise from the region's U.S. representative, Harold "Hal" Rogers. He credited the senator with helping win funding for such key regional initiatives as fighting illegal drugs and protecting waterways.
"I sure would hate to have to call over there to another (Senate) freshman trying to get help," Rogers said. "I'm afraid it wouldn't be there."
Although few national Democratic surrogates have joined Lunsford on the campaign trail, he said former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland would appear Saturday, with others to follow.
"People now know this is a close race all over the country," he said. "When Republicans in the Senate are already talking about who the new leadership will be, that means there must be some concern in their camp."
Lunsford made a major pledge to the Richmond community, home of the Blue Grass Army Depot, which houses a stockpile of chemical weapons awaiting destruction.
McConnell pushed a measure through Congress setting a new deadline of 2017, but Lunsford promised to work to get rid of the weapons much sooner.