FRANKFORT — Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and his major Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, will take the same stage Saturday for the first time as rivals in next year's U.S. Senate race in Kentucky.
The occasion will be the political speaking program Saturday afternoon at the 133rd annual Fancy Farm picnic in the far Western Kentucky county of Graves, where candidates often unleash old-school stemwinders laced with political raw meat.
McConnell and Grimes have urged their supporters to trek to the grounds of St. Jerome Catholic Church in the tiny community of Fancy Farm, where the population is expected to swell from 458 to more than 10,000 this weekend.
The event traditionally kicks off fall political campaigns in Kentucky, but there are no elections this fall in the Bluegrass State. Instead, much attention — nationally as well as statewide — already has been focused on the 2014 U.S. Senate race, which is in full swing.
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C-SPAN is scheduled to carry the 3 p.m. Saturday program to a national audience, and the Kentucky Educational Television network will be there to offer it to statewide viewers, said picnic political organizer Mark Wilson.
McConnell, who has been in the Senate since January 1985 and has been minority leader since 2007, not only has to deal with Democratic opposition at the picnic but with a Republican opponent who has the backing of some Tea Party organizations in the state.
Louisville businessman Matt Bevin will also have the stage to unleash criticism of McConnell at Fancy Farm. Bevin campaign spokeswoman Sarah Durand said Bevin will stress that McConnell is "a career politician who is out of touch with Kentucky voters and is known for his big spending."
The picnic will mark Bevin's first public encounter with McConnell since he announced his candidacy last week.
McConnell is ready, campaign manager Jesse Benton said Thursday.
"Mitch will lay out the continued assault on Kentucky being launched by President Obama and his allies — the same people who have recruited Alison Grimes to help advance their agenda," he said.
Benton, who has referred to Bevin as "a nuisance," said nothing about McConnell's primary opponent.
Grimes' campaign consultant, Jonathan Hurst, said Grimes this weekend "will continue the momentum of this exciting week."
"We saw record crowds ... at her official kick-off in Lexington, huge crowds on her bus tour the last few days in Western Kentucky and anticipate much enthusiasm for her at Fancy Farm and beyond right up to next year's election," Hurst said.
A poll released Friday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm based in Raleigh, N.C., showed Grimes leading McConnell 45 percent to 44 percent in the race. But a Republican poll by the Ohio-based Wenzel Strategies this week showed McConnell leading Grimes 48 percent to 40 percent, and crushing Bevin 59 percent to 20 percent among GOP voters.
The executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Guy Cecil, said Thursday that the McConnell campaign is "so panicked" by Grimes and Bevin that McConnell is sending his chief of staff, Josh Holmes, to assist the National Republican Senatorial Committee and McConnell's campaign.
But Benton said Holmes' move to the NRSC is "such great news for Republicans everywhere."
"Josh Holmes is one of the best minds in politics, and the chances of having Mitch McConnell, a proud Kentuckian, leading the Senate and protecting our values just got even greater," he said.
Ed Marksberry, an Owensboro contractor, is another Democrat running for the U.S. Senate next year who is scheduled to speak at Fancy Farm. He said Thursday that his main goal at the picnic is "to expose Mitch McConnell, who believes strongly in corporate money that is ruining our political system."
Two other Democrats running for the U.S. Senate with little statewide following — Louisville music promoter Bennie J. Smith and University of Louisville communications professor Greg Leichty — are not scheduled to speak at the picnic.
With the political phenomenon known as Fancy Farm approaching, the chairmen of the state's two major political parties said excitement for their candidates is sky-high.
"We will impress people with our energy at Fancy Farm," said state Democratic Party Chairman Daniel Logsdon. "We have sent out emails, not Robo-calls as the McConnell people are using, to our supporters to urge them to try to be there. It will be a seminal moment for our cause."
Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson said he expects Fancy Farm 2013 will "be a robust discussion of what's needed in the U.S. Senate for Kentucky."
Both Logsdon and Robertson said their sides will have "various visuals" for the picnic crowd and news media, but they declined to detail their planned theatrics.
"The political theater at Fancy Farm sometimes is just as effective as the spoken words," Robertson said.
Robertson also said this year's Fancy Farm probably will produce "more rumblings" about who is interested in running for governor and other state constitutional offices in 2015.
Three constitutional officers who have been mentioned as possible candidates for governor will be speaking at the picnic: Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, Democratic State Auditor Adam Edelen and Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
All three will be courting voters and touting their accomplishments throughout Western Kentucky this weekend.
Conway has scheduled a news conference in Paducah on Friday to discuss efforts with the U.S. Department of Energy to clean up the closing Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and to preserve jobs there.
Edelen is to join state Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, Friday afternoon at the Calvert City Gun Club to host trhe "Clays for Kids Trap and Skeet Shoot."
Comer has been in Western Kentucky since Monday attending meetings, touring farms, speaking at civic clubs and giving interviews.
Notable no-shows for this year's picnic are Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who said he is working on economic development projects; Democratic Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, who said he has a family commitment; Democratic Treasurer Todd Hollenbach, who said he has a previous commitment; and Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who said he has another commitment.
Abramson has said he will announce by mid-August whether he will run for governor in 2015.
Another potential candidate for governor, former Democratic Auditor Crit Luallen, said she is considering a bid for governor but will not be at Fancy Farm because of recent knee surgery.
Who will separate himself from the pack of potential gubernatorial candidates in 2015?
More OnlineLive video: Watch KET's coverage of Fancy Farm live on Kentucky.com, starting with an on-location episode of Comment on Kentucky at 8 p.m. ET Friday, followed by live video of political speaches at 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday.