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On Tuesday, Ky. was a state divided

While Barack Obama didn't win Kentucky, his performance here relative to 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry's signals a continued shift in the Bluegrass State's political landscape that revealed a sharp divide between rural and urban voters.

The bright side for Obama is that he fared better than Kerry in the areas with the most voters.

All 10 of the most populous counties in Kentucky saw Obama outperform Kerry, while rural counties — particularly those in the Eastern Kentucky mountains — moved further to the right between 2004 and 2008.

"It's not all that surprising," said Joe Gershtenson, a political science professor at Eastern Kentucky University. "To a large extent, that trend also characterizes American politics, in terms of rural and urban states."

Overall, Obama won just eight of 120 counties in Kentucky as he lost to Republican John McCain by 17 percentage points. President George W. Bush defeated Kerry four years ago by 20 points.

Nearly all the ground Obama made up from Kerry's totals came from urban and suburban areas, even in solidly Republican counties with key cities, such as the Northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati, conservative Elizabethtown, Bowling Green and Hopkinsville, which is adjacent to Fort Campbell.

And he scored solid wins in the two biggest counties, Jefferson and Fayette, which contain the cities of Louisville and Lexington.

"You're talking about the more educated counties, by and large there," Gershtenson said. "It's not surprising that that's where you would have seen Obama doing better than Kerry."

The Lexington area flipped in four years. Obama won the county and received 5.1 points more than Kerry, who lost to Bush in Fayette County in 2004. The vote totals were nearly opposites, with Obama getting 66,042 to McCain's 59,884 votes. Bush won the county with 66,406 compared with 57,994 for Kerry.

"We had a message this year that resonated with Fayette Countians much more than we did in '04 with Kerry," said David O'Neill, the county's Democratic Party chairman.

O'Neill, whose party's candidates also scored easy wins in two Lexington legislative races, said the county isn't a "slam dunk" for Democrats but has seemed to shift more toward the left.

That trend was apparent to Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who had carried his home area of Jefferson County in all but one of his previous four races and had never lost in Fayette County before Tuesday. This time, Democrat Bruce Lunsford beat him by 40,000 votes in Louisville and by 10,000 in Lexington.

"Both Jefferson and Fayette have become more liberal during the course of my political career," McConnell said a day after his nearly 107,000-vote statewide win. "When I began, they used to say that the way a Republican won statewide was to take Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky and the Old 5th Congressional District" in southern Kentucky.

"Obviously, those things have changed," he said.

Republicans McConnell and McCain still dominated in the conservative, heavily Catholic Northern Kentucky suburbs of Cincinnati.

But McConnell, whose race was considerably closer than the presidential contest in Kentucky, secured his victory in rural areas.

"The election was basically decided in places where I'm the strongest, which is smaller towns all across the state," he said.

Many of those areas remain heavily Democratic in registration numbers but have been increasing supportive of Republicans, especially for the presidency and Congress over the last 10 to 15 years. Western Kentucky counties, for instance, have become reliably Republican.

And perhaps the biggest concern for Democrats from Tuesday's results is that most Eastern Kentucky counties — some of which have five Democrats for every Republican — voted overwhelmingly for McCain.

Some factors, observers said, are specific to the unique and historical nature of this election — particularly an economic disaster not seen since the Great Depression and the nation's first black nominee from a major party.

"And I wish I didn't have to say that race plays a huge part in this, but I do. I really don't think you'd see this huge urban/rural divide if Hillary Clinton were the Democratic nominee," said Gershtenson, of EKU.

Some counties in the heart of coal country, such as Knott, Letcher, Floyd, Perry and Harlan, voted more than 13 points higher for McCain than they did four years ago for Bush.

Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a Democrat who formerly represented part of that region in the state Senate, said the lack of campaigning in that region by Obama hurt him on several levels.

"We just like to know who we vote for. We're not a media society, we're a personal society," he said. "I think there was a lack of familiarity. And of course in the last few days there was the controversy over Sen. Obama's comments on coal. You only heard the message from one side and you didn't hear a dialogue."

In the waning days, a recording surfaced with Obama talking about how imposing environmental controls on the coal industry could bankrupt it.

Steve Robertson, the Kentucky Republican Party chairman, agreed that those comments hurt Obama in the heart of coal country.

But he said that area, while still Democratic on paper, could be trending Republican, as evidenced by the GOP capturing Mongiardo's former state Senate seat last February in an expensive, hotly contested special election.

McConnell also won all four of the counties in that state Senate district Tuesday.

"I don't know whether it's a trickle-down effect from the presidential race or whether there's a shift going on," Robertson said. "You can't really paint a picture of Kentucky using party labels anymore. It's more about ideology, and that's a conservative area."

Robertson said he wasn't concerned about Republicans losing their grip on the Northern Kentucky counties and some Western Kentucky counties along the Ohio River that gave greater support to Obama than to Kerry. Those counties, which stretch from Lewis County along the river to Henderson County, border Ohio and Indiana — both fiercely sought-after swing states barraged with presidential ads that ultimately went for Obama.

"You've got a lot of action there on the tube, and that's going to make a big impact," he said. "And it's very fair to say there was a mood of concern nationally and in Kentucky over the economy."

Hancock County, a small county near Owensboro with about 8,600 people and several aluminum plants, had the largest shift for Democrats between 2004 and 2008, a swing of 8.7 points that saw the county move from the Bush column to Obama's.

The economy was at the center of that as voters who saw "how the country was going in debt and the way the economy was going" went toward the Democrats, said the county's judge-executive, Jack McCaslin.

"There were a lot of people who tired of a Republican administration and pulled the straight Democratic ticket," said McCaslin, a Democrat. "That's good news because for a lot of years we were going in the other direction."

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