FRANKFORT - Faced with two challengers in the GOP primary now, Gov. Ernie Fletcher and his chief backers responded last week with an aggressive effort to snare Republicans' endorsements and expressed frustration with those who support his opponents.
It was, to date, the most tangible sign of Fletcher's resolve to stave off a mutiny within the GOP.
"I've talked to a few friends who have gotten phone calls in the last week," said J. Todd Inman, an Owensboro Republican. "It's amazing that it didn't seem like there was a campaign in existence until a week ago, when a formidable opponent emerged.
"Now it seems there's a mad scurry to get people's names on a piece of paper," he said, noting that endorsements don't always translate into votes. "That's the reason why we have secret ballots."
Paducah businessman Billy Harper has been running against the governor for the GOP nomination since September. But the entrance of former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup into the race last week seemed to flick a switch somewhere within the Fletcher camp.
Key administration officials -- including Fletcher's running mate and executive cabinet secretary, Robbie Rudolph, Personnel Cabinet Secretary Brian Crall and chief of staff Stan Cave -- burned up the phone lines trying to solidify support and send messages to Republicans who are no longer behind the governor.
Some of the tactics -- notably a phone call from Cave to GOP state Rep. Bill Farmer of Lexington -- have stirred some controversy.
Cave, who lives in Farmer's district, confirmed that he phoned Farmer to tell him he wouldn't help him in future elections after the Herald-Leader quoted Farmer as saying he was supporting Northup.
Farmer said there was little tact in Cave's approach.
"He said he would return the favor 100 times over," Farmer said. "I would take that as politically threatening."
Other officials who are supporting Northup and running mate Jeff Hoover -- such as state Rep. Steven Rudy of LaCenter and Hardin County Judge-Executive Harry Berry -- said the calls they received from other Fletcher lieutenants were more benign.
Rudy said Rudolph, a fellow Western Kentuckian, contacted him Tuesday, the day before Northup formally filed to run.
"There was no pressure applied to me," Rudy said of the call. He declined to offer any other details.
Rudy, in his second term in the General Assembly, said he doesn't know Northup well but is backing the ticket because of his loyalty to Hoover, the House Republicans' leader from Jamestown.
Berry said administration officials, whom he declined to name, urged him to reconsider supporting Northup.
"They were trying to express the types of things they've done for counties," he said. He said he didn't think any Hardin County projects or road money were in danger of being stripped because of his stance.
Fletcher's campaign manager, Marty Ryall, said no threats are being made.
He attributed the increase in activity to the campaign shifting into high gear.
"The people who have been with the governor before -- you want to make sure they're still there," Ryall said. "If they're with us, great. If not, so be it."
The Fletcher campaign, meanwhile, carpet-bombed reporters' e-mail inboxes with press releases updating them on local officials and state senators who endorse Fletcher's re-election bid.
In all, 15 of the 21 Republican state senators have indicated they're backing the governor. So have three Northern Kentucky county judge-executives, 10 south-central Kentucky judge-executives and a smattering of city officials.
Such endorsements "affect fund-raising and show a little bit of momentum," said Scott Lasley, a political-science professor at Western Kentucky University and a registered Republican. "But I don't think it goes very far toward answering some of the questions about the challenges Fletcher faces."
Better late than never
Northup and Hoover launched their campaign with a two-day "fly-around" tour of Kentucky that featured stops in 10 cities.
One snag, however, was that the Friday schedule released to the news media didn't take into account the time-zone change between Central Standard Time in Western Kentucky and Eastern Standard Time.
As a result, campaign manager Cam Savage said he had to contact reporters in several cities to change the start time for those events.
Still, by the end of the day, Northup and Hoover had nearly gotten back on track with the schedule, arriving in Hoover's home city of Jamestown just 10 minutes late.
Savage said several of the stops drew larger-than-expected crowds. He confirmed that at least two key Republicans appeared at the Jamestown stop: state Sen. Vernie McGaha of Russell Springs -- one of six GOP senators who have not endorsed Fletcher -- and Steve Branscum, a construction company owner who has been a prominent backer of Fletcher's and even shares an investment with the governor in Destin, Fla.
Savage said he didn't know whether either man would be formally endorsing Northup and Hoover.
Fletcher staff changes
In addition to Fletcher's campaign manager, former Georgia and Arkansas Republican operative Marty Ryall, coming aboard last week, lobbyist Amy Wickliffe returned to her roots as Fletcher's campaign finance director.
Wickliffe worked on Fletcher's 2003 finance team before taking a job with first lady Glenna Fletcher, then entering the private sector as a lobbyist.
Fletcher, however, is losing Jessica Ditto, who served as his lone campaign employee for more than a year. Ditto will leave at the end of the month.
She said it was a "personal decision to give myself time to pursue other opportunities before pursuing graduate school."
Since the fall of 2005, Ditto has juggled most of the campaign duties -- setting up fund-raisers, collecting donations, even handling reporters' calls -- by herself.
Also, Ryall said, the Fletcher campaign is expecting to launch its Web site this week, www.erniefletcher.com.