Politics & Government

Alessi: Miller acting like chief opponent to Lunsford

The late entrance of Bruce Lunsford and his massive wallet into the Democratic primary for governor has shaken up the race and forced his six opponents to rework their political calculus.

One rival, state Treasurer Jonathan Miller, already has placed Lunsford in his sights, taking two jabs at him within the first week of Lunsford's candidacy with running mate Greg Stumbo, the attorney general.

It's clear that Miller has pegged Lunsford, a millionaire businessman, as the man to beat, said Danny Briscoe, a campaign consultant from Louisville who is not affiliated with any campaign. By going on the offensive, Miller is attempting to build the public perception that he's the chief opponent, Briscoe said.

"And he's doing it through free media," rather than spending money on attack commercials, he added.

Lunsford changes the dynamics because in the 2003 Democratic primary, he famously dished out $8.16 million of his own money, traded shots with Ben Chandler, then dropped out four days before the primary. He later backed Republican Ernie Fletcher over Chandler, the Democrats' nominee.

Miller called a news conference Jan. 28 to ask several questions: whether Lunsford would spend millions of dollars, whether he'd bash the others, and whether he'd support the nominee if it's not him. Lunsford's answers to reporters the next day were "Yes," "No" and "Yes," respectively.

On Friday, an undeterred Miller launched salvo No. 2 -- a lengthy statement to reporters calling for "an end to financial games in government and businesses that put Kentuckians' retirement accounts at risk." He pegged his statement to growing concerns over a $12 billion estimated deficit the Kentucky Retirement System could face. (Miller, it should be noted, sits on the board of directors for the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, which says it has the resources now to cover just 76 percent of its future needs.)

But in his statement's second-to-last paragraph, Miller singled out Lunsford, asking whether he would be vigilant on retirement issues. "Lunsford's handling of the bankruptcy at his company left many of his employees losing their retirement savings, while he received a severance package of $825,000." Miller was referring to the bankruptcy of nursing home company Vencor Inc.

Lunsford's campaign responded with a statement that ignored Miller but said Lunsford would make the retirement system "a top priority." Briscoe, the longtime campaign consultant, said he expected a third Democratic contender, Steve Henry, to join Miller in tackling Lunsford.

Henry's name recognition remains high after two terms as lieutenant governor. But Briscoe said he doubts that just acting like the chief rival is enough to make it happen for Henry or Miller.

"He may be the guy, but it will be for another reason," such as campaign organization or policy ideas, Briscoe said.

Briscoe noted that Steve Beshear, another candidate in this race, unsuccessfully tried a similar strategy to shake up the 1987 Democratic primary for governor.

In that crowded field, Beshear went after former Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., who was trying to win the office back, and he even showed up when Brown filed his campaign papers to appear as the major roadblock for the former governor.

It never caught on. And the bickering with Brown allowed another millionaire, Wallace Wilkinson -- who had built up a network of activists and was pushing for the lottery -- to sneak through the middle and win.

Having other candidates take on Lunsford could benefit House Speaker Jody Richards most, Briscoe said. "It sets up Jody to be in a good position to make a move," he said, noting that Richards stayed positive in the 2003 primary that he narrowly lost to Chandler after spending less than a third of the money.

That brings it back to campaign funds. The key is whether the others can raise enough money to stay competitive with Lunsford.

"He spent millions in 2003 but that didn't make a difference," Miller said last week. The size of a campaign bank account isn't always proportional to the number of votes.

Miller should know. He spent the most money -- $575,326 -- in the 1998 Democratic primary for Congress in Central Kentucky and finished sixth out of seven candidates. He fared better as the top spender in his treasurer's race in 2003. (See chart for the Democratic primary candidates' recent money-raising history.)

However, Democrat Gatewood Galbraith, the Lexington lawyer who has unsuccessfully sought various public offices, said at a recent debate that it doesn't matter how the other Democratic candidates shuffle themselves.

"You can put them all in a bag and shake them up," he said, "and they'll all come out looking like Pringles potato chips."

Presidential division

While Gov. Ernie Fletcher says all the members of his re-election campaign team are on the same page, their allegiances to presidential candidates are sharply divided.

Fletcher's campaign manager, Marty Ryall, is a former Arkansas Republican Party executive director who describes himself as a "Huckabee guy," referring to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is running for president.

The governor's media firm, Strategic Perception, and its boss, Fred Davis, have signed on to produce commercials for another contender, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

And Fletcher pollster Dave Sackett and his firm, the Tarrance Group, have signed on to help Rudy Giuliani's campaign. Oh, and another presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, was in Kentucky on Saturday as keynote speaker at the GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner.

So who is Fletcher supporting for president?

"Right now, I'm focused on the governor's race," he said.