FRANKFORT -- With his first chance to fire up the Republican faithful for his re-election bid, Gov. Ernie Fletcher and his remarks outlining his accomplishments drew little more than polite applause from GOP officials and supporters yesterday.
That lack of energy -- coupled with comments from GOP activists hesitant to throw their support behind Fletcher in the party's primary -- underscored an atmosphere of awkwardness and uncertainty within the Kentucky GOP.
The Republicans, who had been out of the governor's mansion for 32 years before Fletcher's win in 2003, finally have an incumbent to rally around. But so far the party has failed to embrace Fletcher.
Fletcher said he plans to build his re-election bid around touting his policy accomplishments, as he did to the GOP central committee members at Frankfort's Best Western yesterday.
"Believe me, Kentucky has changed from three years ago. We're a lot better off," he told the 120 Republicans.
He also made a plea for Republicans to remain loyal. "It's important that the party is united," he said.
At least one of the governor's likely primary opponents, Paducah millionaire Billy Harper, attended the meeting and made a brief speech as well.
And with a renewed buzz that Anne Northup, the recently defeated congresswoman from Louisville, is thinking about the race, several party activists said they're not ready to back anyone.
"I think since some people have expressed interest, we need to sit back and see who files," said Shirley West-Bennett, a Republican central committee member from Lexington. "As a volunteer, I want to see who comes out of the primary."
State Rep. Scott Brinkman, R-Louisville, said he, too, is holding off on any endorsement. He said neither Fletcher nor Harper has asked for his support yet. And a primary skirmish might not be bad for the party, he added.
"Primaries can be healthy as long as they're conducted in a positive manner," he said. "Any time you have a primary, it helps sharpen up the skills and the message for the fall election."
Less than a month after Northup, a five-term U.S. representative, lost a close race to Democrat John Yarmuth, her name is being circulated by some Jefferson County Republicans as a possible contender against Fletcher.
Jack Richardson IV, the Jefferson County Republican Party chairman, said he believes Northup could defeat Fletcher in the May primary.
"I have not spoken with her, but it's my understanding that it's under serious consideration," he said.
Patrick Neely, who ran Northup's congressional campaign, said in a telephone interview that "Anne is not inclined to run for governor, but she certainly is receiving a lot of encouragement to run."
Ted Jackson, a Louisville-based Republican campaign consultant and Northup's longtime campaign chairman, said Republicans are looking to people like Northup because there is a "quiet panic" within the party that Fletcher would win the GOP nomination, only to lose to a Democrat next fall.
Jackson said Fletcher is risking setting the party back and likened his candidacy to the former Branch Davidian cult leader who led his members to a deadly end with authorities in 1993.
"Ernie Fletcher is the David Koresh of Kentucky Republican politics," Jackson said. "He's boarded the windows and locked the doors and said, 'Take it from us, we'll burn it to the ground.'"
After giving his speech, Fletcher shrugged off criticism from Jackson and others, saying that he plans to take his message directly to Kentucky voters.
"You're always going to have naysayers if you do something," he said. "We've spent most of our time getting things done and not enough time telling them what we've done."
Making their cases
Fletcher said he believes he can reverse any tarnishing of his image that resulted from the 18-month-long investigation into his administration's hiring practices. A grand jury indicted Fletcher in connection with the probe, but the charges were dropped in a deal with prosecutors.
Fletcher said the fact that 61 percent of the political appointees he's chosen for high-ranking posts have been Democrats makes it "very clear I've not been a partisan governor."
In addition to touting successes, such as expanding broadband Internet service to 87 percent of the state and revamping the costly and fragile Medicaid system, Fletcher said he needs a second term to push health care reforms, a constitutional amendment to allow caps on jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, and lowering individuals' income tax rates.
Fletcher's prospective primary rival, Harper, who has been running TV ads for more than a month, didn't tell the Republicans yesterday what he's been saying to reporters: that he's running for governor because he doesn't believe Fletcher can win re-election.
Instead, Harper put it more generally.
"I want to keep the governor's office in Republican hands," he told the audience. "I think it's valid and important that we have an option."
Harper, like Fletcher, received lukewarm applause, while the most enthusiastic response from the crowd followed the spunky speech of state auditor candidate Linda Greenwell.
Greenwell, who lost that race in 2003 to Democrat Crit Luallen, capped off the meeting with a jingle-like plea for campaign donations and support.
"I need your vote in May and your money today," she said.