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House race for speaker heating up

One of the most competitive campaigns this fall isn't on Tuesday's ballot, but it is playing out behind the scenes among a select group of voters, forcing some of them to screen their calls.

The race for House Speaker — expected to be decided by the majority caucus of House Democrats after lawmakers return to Frankfort on Jan. 6 for the 2009 session — has developed into a race for the ages.

Rep. Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, hinted at challenging House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, over the summer, forcing both to rush to line up their supporters among the rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers.

Most of the more than 60 House Democrats have quietly picked a side, and the race is expected to be tight. That has put the spotlight on Democratic candidates running for open legislative seats or against incumbent Republican representatives who would be new faces in the General Assembly next year — and potentially crucial votes in the speaker's race.

So those candidates' phones have been lighting up, as Stumbo and Richards and their supporters seek to line up support ahead of time from the potential incoming freshmen.

"I have not been courted like this since I was in high school," said Martha Jane King, the Democrat running in Logan and Todd counties' 16th House District, which was left open by the retirement of Republican Rep. Sheldon Baugh of Russellville.

King said backing one or the other now would be inappropriate because she said she has a tough race to try to win against Republican candidate Tim Thompson.

Rep. Rocky Adkins, the House Democratic floor leader from Sandy Hook, said other candidates have complained to him that they've had to deflect calls from both Stumbo and Richards.

"I've had some of them tell me that 'We want to the focus to be on the campaigns but when the campaigns are over we can run leadership races,'" Adkins said. "That has been said to me by some of the candidates. And I can understand that."

House Democrats have a strong chance to pick up two Republican-held open seats and could knock off two or three GOP incumbents. But they also are locked in tough fights to defend two open Democratic seats and have several incumbent Democrats in competitive re-election races.

Stumbo said Sunday that some of those candidates have sought him out for advice in their campaigns.

"I've been talking to them on a regular basis," he said before a Democratic rally in Hazard on Sunday. "And actually I had several calls from three or four of them in the last few days kind of wanting some political advice — some situations came up in their races."

Stumbo declined to name those whom he has been talking with most.

"I feel very good about it," he said of the speaker's race.

Richards denied any suggestion that he's been discussing the leadership contest with the candidates.

"I don't talk about that right now," he told reporters Friday. "All I'm talking about is getting these people elected. ... I don't try to mix the two."

Stumbo, on Sunday, received what initially sounded like an endorsement from New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in Hazard to campaign for U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Lunsford.

When acknowledging Stumbo's presence, Clinton mentioned that he is a former attorney general, is back in the state House and "soon to be the next speaker."

But Clinton wasn't making a pick, said Jerry Lundergan, the former state Democratic Party Chairman who was traveling with Clinton.

Lundergan said Clinton had asked him what Stumbo was doing these days and Lundergan said he told her he was running for House speaker.

Richards, who is seeking his eighth two-year term as speaker, and Stumbo were both staunch supporters of during Kentucky's presidential primary, which Clinton won in May by more than 35 percentage points.

"She didn't know there was a race," said Lundergan.

Kathleen Strand, Clinton's spokeswoman, said Clinton praised Richards in her speech later Sunday in Louisville and that she in no way was weighing into the Kentucky speaker's race.

"Sen. Clinton thinks that both men are great Democrats and appreciates all the support they gave her in the primary," Strand said.