LOUISVILLE — In their first public, joint appearance as candidates for governor, Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin traded only soft blows but set the scene for some nasty fights down the road.
Appearing before the statewide meeting of county judge executives and magistrates at the Galt House hotel, Conway and Bevin presented an early contrast for voters, with Conway talking about programs and services the state needs and Bevin warning about the dangers of spending money the state doesn't have.
Conway, the state's attorney general for almost eight years, demonstrated knowledge of local issues, saying he would approach the job of governor like a "big county judge."
"I know that you're on the front lines every day of dealing with the needs of your people," Conway said.
In his allotted 15 minutes, Conway talked about the pillars of his campaign platform — creating more jobs, investing in education at all levels and getting government to do more with less.
By contrast, Bevin largely focused his remarks on the dire state of the commonwealth's budget, repeatedly challenging Conway to explain where he would find the money to do what he says he wants to do.
"The reality is this state is broke," Bevin said. "Let's not kid ourselves."
Perhaps the sharpest exchange came over investing in early childhood education, with Conway winning applause from the audience for pledging to make such programs a priority and drawing Bevin's ire for stating that the issue was one where he and Bevin disagree.
"Educating a person is like building a house," Conway said. "You lay the foundation first ... and then you build from there."
Bevin shot back that it was "bunk" to say that he does not believe in investing in early childhood education.
"The comment that I'm not a proponent of early childhood education is absolutely bunk, it's baloney," Bevin said. "And the fact that you would get people to applaud for the idea that I'm somehow opposed to it is nonsense."
That did appear to be a reversal for Bevin, who said during a Republican debate on KET in mid-May that early childhood education doesn't help children after third grade, saying at the time that "means we've spent $170 billion on something that after the age of 9 serves no purpose."
"If we're putting our kids in the workforce at the age of 9, I say giddy-up, let's give them more head start," Bevin said last month.
On Friday, Bevin said that where his concerns lie is about "how are we allocating the dollars?"
Bevin also shot back at Conway's pledge to make better paying jobs his top priority, gleefully offering to "talk about jobs."
"I've created more jobs this month literally than my opponent has created his whole life," Bevin said. "That's a fact. Talk is cheap."
Bevin largely used his time to introduce himself to the audience, talking about his background and his belief in American exceptionalism, while Conway focused his remarks on issues like improving infrastructure.
The candidates also took public for the first time their challenges to each other.
In Conway's case, it was a continued effort to get Bevin to release his tax returns as Conway did this week, and for Bevin, it was a challenge — like the one he issued during the Republican primary — for Conway to release a jobs plan, something Conway said he was planning to do next week.
Bevin told CN2 he doesn't see the value in releasing his tax returns, providing Conway with an opening to question the Republican's commitment to transparency.
In turn, Bevin said it was "awesome" that Conway is going to release a jobs plan next week, saying that after a year in the race "it's about time."
Reporters asked Bevin after the joint appearance with Conway whether it was good campaign strategy to tell Kentuckians they can't get everything they want.
"It's not a strategy. It's the truth," said Bevin.
Conway was asked where the money will come from for his goals, such as improving early childhood education.
He said federal funds could help with education and added that he is talking especially about improving the education of children whose parents are in poverty.
Conway said he has never said any political figure can give people everything they want.
Besides hearing from the two major candidates for governor, the several hundred at the local officials' conference heard from the candidates for attorney general, auditor and agriculture commissioner.
In the attorney general's race, Democrat Andy Beshear, a Louisville attorney who is a son of Gov. Steve Beshear, said he is not running as the son of a governor but as "a proud dad" who wants to improve Kentucky for his children and all families.
As attorney general, he said he would focus on the state's "epidemic" level of child abuse, drug abuse and better protection for senior citizens.
Republican Whitney Westerfield, a state senator from Hopkinsville and a former assistant prosecutor, said he is the only candidate for the state's top law-enforcement job with experience as a prosecutor and a shaper of public policy.
He noted his legislative involvement in producing this year's anti-heroin and dating violence bills, as well as overhauling the state juvenile justice system in a previous law-making session.
In the auditor's race, Democratic incumbent Adam Edelen of Lexington touted his performance in office, noting his role in the investigation and conviction of former state Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer for misusing state resources and bringing changes to special taxing districts.
He also said he was the first state auditor of Kentucky to audit school districts and is now looking at the handling of untested rape evidence kits.
Republican Mike Harmon, a Republican from Danville, contended that Edelen should have audited all state retirement systems.
He also pledged to fight public corruption more than Edelen has.
In the race for agriculture commissioner, Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, a farm radio host from Union, said she will concentrate on increasing Kentucky's farm exports, bringing more jobs to the state and improving farm safety.
Republican Ryan Quarles, a state representative from Scott County, said his priorities will be promoting Kentucky farm products, educating students about the source of food, growing exports and standing up to "out-of-control" federal regulations.