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Straight ticket a dinosaur in W. Ky.

Everywhere they go Democratic officials are urging anyone who will listen to vote the straight ticket for that party's candidates on Nov. 4.

"It'll be real simple: walk in and pull that lever and then you can come out and feel good that you've done what you need to do," former Democratic Gov. Martha Layne Collins told 1,000 Democrats in Bowling Green last week.

The era of dominant straight-ticket voting in Kentucky, however, has long passed along with $1.30-a-gallon gasoline, Lehman Brothers stock and voting booths with levers.

And in this election, Kentucky voters willing to cross party lines will play a key role in deciding the U.S. Senate race.

Even with forces nationally favoring Democrats, Republican John McCain is likely to carry Kentucky with solid support from registered Democrats. The key question, though, is how many of those Democrats will gravitate back to their party for the Senate contest between Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

Kentuckians' penchant for ticket-splitting has been especially obvious in Western Kentucky. Even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, the region has increasingly tilted toward Republicans in federal elections, while still electing many Democratic local officials.

It's been a gradual but significant political shift.

In 1980, Democrat Jimmy Carter collected 13,000 more votes than Republican Ronald Reagan in the 34 counties west of I-65.

Four years later, Reagan won those same counties by 50,000 votes, while Democratic Sen. Walter "Dee" Huddleston received 20,000 more votes there than McConnell, who still went on to win the state by about 5,000 votes.

By 2004, Republican Sen. Jim Bunning carried those 34 counties by 26,000 votes, which helped him edge Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo. Bunning won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes.

Martha Jane King, a Democratic candidate for state representative in the 16th District, said voters in the counties she's seeking to represent are typical of western Kentuckians. They tend to pick Republicans for Congress and the White House and local candidates they like regardless of party, she said.

Those counties — Logan and Todd, which are on the Tennessee border — went for Reagan in '84 but against McConnell that year. Both were in Bill Clinton's column in 1992, but Todd switched to Republican Bob Dole in '96. Voters in both counties overwhelmingly picked George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Bunning in the '04 Senate race.

This year, King said she senses voters will jump back and forth as they move down their ballots.

"I feel like Logan and Todd counties are still going to carry John McCain," King said. "And anything under that I can't really say. People are so frustrated with what's been going on nationally that they've given me the inclination that they're going to vote Democrat" in other races, such as the U.S. Senate contest.

The latest polling results seem to suggest plenty of ticket-splitting.

McCain holds a 16-point lead over Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, while McConnell's lead over Lunsford is just four points, according to last week's Herald-Leader/WKYT Kentucky Poll.

"Well, I don't believe there's been a single attack ad run against Sen. McCain in Kentucky," McConnell said, when asked about the disparity between the two races. "And we've had a spirited contest. A lot of funds have been spent attacking me and I've spent a lot of funds."

McConnell said his key argument to prevent McCain voters from switching sides is his clout as Senate Republican leader, which he has argued allows him to direct resources to Kentucky.

His latest commercial features Democratic local officials from Western Kentucky talking about that.

"He doesn't care whether I'm a Democrat or Republican," Henderson County Sheriff Ed Brady, a Democrat, says in the ad. "He cares I'm a Kentuckian."

But voters split their tickets for all kinds of reasons.

Last week in Paris, after a Lunsford campaign event featuring Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, Republican voter Brent Garrison approached Chandler to praise him for opposing the $700 billion financial market bailout bill.

Later, Garrison said he'll vote for McCain, will cross over to vote for Chandler now but is undecided on the U.S. Senate race, partially because he disagreed with McConnell for supporting the bailout plan.

But the key on Election Night will be the votes from those conservative Democrats in Western Kentucky.

Jennifer Moore, a Paducah native and chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, made a direct plea to activists in Bowling Green on Friday.

"When I was growing up in Western Kentucky, it was Democrats as far as you can see," she said. "And I know they're still out there. My challenge to you is to show the commonwealth and this nation on Nov. 4 that the Democratic Party is back and stronger than ever in Western Kentucky."

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