Far and away, the biggest issue facing the state is the economy, according to this week's Kentucky Poll.
Seventy-two percent of those surveyed said the economy was the single most important issue to them. No other issue reached double digits; the closest was education, at 9 percent.
It's not hard to see why. Economic indicators show the recession is over, but businesses haven't done enough hiring yet to drive down a stubborn 9.6 percent national unemployment rate.
In Kentucky, the preliminary unemployment rate for September actually edged up to 10.1 percent from the revised August level of 10 percent, the state Office of Employment and Training announced this week.
People are clearly worried about the job picture.
"They either lost their job, they know somebody who lost their job, they haven't had a pay increase in a couple of years," said Don Gross, a political-science professor at the University of Kentucky. "It's hard to feel real comfortable about the economy right now."
Timothy Epperson of Breathitt County, one of those contacted in the poll, said his stepson, Thomas Molands, 30, lost his job about two years ago when the construction industry plummeted.
Molands hasn't been able to find work in the county recently, but he is talking with owners of a local motel about a part-time job, Epperson said.
"It's pitiful here right now," said Epperson, 52, a former coal-truck driver disabled in a wreck. "They holler that the recession is over. I just don't see it."
Concern over the economy probably benefits Republican Rand Paul in the U.S. Senate race, observers said.
President Barack Obama argues the economic meltdown began on his predecessor's watch. The nation lost eight million jobs before measures Democrats put in place to try to deal with the crisis could begin getting traction, Obama said in a speech Thursday.
But when times are bad, many people blame the party in power, political observers said.
"There's that tendency to say, 'We're going to hold the Democrats responsible,'" said Joe Gershtenson, director of the Institute of Public Governance and Civic Engagement at Eastern Kentucky University.
That's reinforced because unemployment remains high on Obama's watch, even after he aggressively pushed measures aimed at boosting jobs.
Paul's Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, will be guilty by association for many voters, Gershtenson said.
The fact that Paul is seen as an outsider also helps him tap into the frustration over the economy.
However, several poll participants contacted by a reporter said they did not know what Paul or Conway have proposed to improve the economy.
The war of television commercials has been dominated by broadsides against the candidates, not information about their proposals, voters said.
"That's the problem with these commercials. You hear all about their opponents, but you never hear what they're going to do," said Richard Young of Louisville, a retired banker. "I could make a much better choice if I had that information."
To boost jobs, Conway has advocated proposals to expand lending to small businesses and provide a tax credit for businesses that hire workers.
Paul has not outlined specific economic proposals, such as loan programs. But he has made reducing federal spending and taxes the centerpiece of his campaign, arguing that cutting taxes would leave businesses with more money to invest and hire people.
Most Kentuckians agree with his call to cut spending, even though the state gets back more from the federal treasury than it pays in.
In the Kentucky Poll, 60 percent of those contacted said cutting federal spending would be a better way to improve the economy, in the short term, than continued increased spending to create jobs.
Some economists believe Congress needs to spend more to boost the economy. However, others argue that boosting the economy can be accomplished by cutting spending, said Ken Troske, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky.
"It is a fairly controversial question in economics about the best way to stimulate the economy," Troske said.
It's harder to make the case that cutting spending boosts the economy in the short term — which was the question in the poll — but it can be made, Troske said.
By one estimate, there were 3.6 million more jobs in the country at mid-year than there would have been without the $800 billion-plus federal stimulus program that Democrats pushed through in 2009, Christina Romer, former chair of the White House Council on Economic Advisors, said in July.
"The Recovery Act and other actions have helped to turn the economy from free-fall to recovery," Romer told Congress.
However, many Kentuckians don't believe the stimulus did much of anything except add to a deep federal debt they find troubling.
Paul did not favor the stimulus program.
Conway favored the tax cuts in the stimulus and spending to preserve jobs, but he felt there was not enough accountability in efforts to create jobs through "shovel-ready" projects, his spokesman said.
The Herald-Leader commissioned the statewide Kentucky Poll of likely voters with WKYT-TV in Lexington and WAVE-TV in Louisville. Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington, D.C. conducted the telephone poll of 625 registered voters on Oct. 18 and 19. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Other issues that have been a major part of the Senate race were not nearly as important to voters as the economy, the poll showed.
For instance, outside groups have spent freely to criticize Conway for his support of health care reform legislation Congress approved this year, but only 8 percent of those polled cited health care as the single most important issue facing the state.
Paul favors repealing the law.
Cap and trade has been a big issue as well. The term refers to a system of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by putting a cap on sources such as coal-burning power plants, and letting industries trade pollution credits to meet the cap.
Both Paul and Conway oppose a cap-and-trade bill approved by the U.S. House last year. Paul and Republicans have charged that Conway once supported cap and trade, but Conway says that is not true.
For all the heat, less than 1 percent of voters cited environmental and energy issues, including cap and trade, as the most important issue facing the state.