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Senate seat is talk of dinner

FRANKFORT — Kentucky Republican stalwarts put on a united front Saturday night and predicted future political success, despite a recent public spat between the state's two GOP U.S. senators.

Questions surrounding the future of U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning lingered among a crowd packed with the baseball Hall of Fame pitcher's possible political rivals.

"There's no hiding the fact that there's a little tension in the air among us Republicans here this evening," state Rep. Jeff Hoover, the Kentucky House Republican floor leader from Jamestown, told a crowd of about 400 Republicans. "But that's all right — that can be healthy."

Bunning has been considered perhaps the most vulnerable Republican incumbent running for re-election next year. Party leaders have sent not-so-subtle signals that Bunning should bow out rather than face a likely strong Democratic challenge. Top-ranking Republicans in the state are also eyeing the spot.

So far, Bunning has had problems raising money to support his campaign for a third term. He's had other difficulties, too, and has issued two public apologies, including one for remarks that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could soon die of pancreatic cancer.

Meanwhile, GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell has not endorsed Bunning. Earlier this week, Bunning criticized McConnell, blaming him for losing Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democrats and costing the party Senate seats in 2008.

Neither discussed the matter in their comments Saturday night.

Bunning touted his conservative credentials and congressional voting record and asked his fellow Republicans for support in the coming year. He reiterated his re-election plans.

"I am nobody's puppet. I am my own man," Bunning said during his remarks. "I hope and pray I can count on your support in the coming months. The battle is going to be long, but I am prepared to fight for my values. I hope you are with me."

McConnell declined to address Bunning's 2010 race or any fissure between him and Kentucky's junior senator. After the speech, McConnell said he liked Bunning "a lot" but did not answer other questions about the race.

"If you're talking about the 2010 Senate race, I think we'll just have to wait and see how it unfolds," McConnell said. "It's not at all clear yet what's going to happen next year."

Still, some possible GOP rivals attended the dinner, including Secretary of State Trey Grayson, Senate President David Williams and former U.S. Ambassador Catherine Todd Bailey.

Two Democrats, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway, are also vying for Bunning's seat.

Grayson, who has started making preparations to run, said he has no plans to challenge Bunning in a GOP primary. Grayson called Bunning a "mentor and a friend" but did not rule out possibly challenging him. He served as master of ceremonies at Saturday's dinner, a high-profile role that gave him plenty of face time with the audience, though he did not bring up the 2010 race.

Bailey said she had "the utmost respect" for Bunning but was considering a run.

"I've not made a final decision yet on exactly what I'm going to be doing." Bailey said.

Williams said he would consider challenging Bunning if the senator were to stay in the race unchallenged. But Williams said he likely would not enter a crowded primary.

"The only question about Senator Bunning is whether he can be re-elected," he said.