MOUNT STERLING — Kentucky's U.S. Senate race is not just for Kentuckians anymore.
What began as U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's bid for a fifth term against a wealthy but politically shaky Democratic challenger has turned into a national sidebar to the presidential race.
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The national press has found its way to the Bluegrass, while big-name Democrats are giving a hard look at spending prime campaigning time over the last two weeks before Election Day to help Bruce Lunsford in his attempt to unseat the Republican Senate leader.
On Saturday, former U.S. senator and Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland urged more than 120 voters at a Montgomery County Democratic breakfast to replace McConnell, whom he called President Bush's "water boy."
Cleland, who met Lunsford at a campaign fund-raiser in Atlanta, said Democrats outside of Kentucky have been pleasantly surprised to see Lunsford within striking distance of McConnell in the polls and are now paying close attention.
"It's giving people hope that the devil himself can be beaten because Mitch is not only a Republican, he's the leader of that hard-core, right-wing reactionary constituency in the Senate," Cleland told the Herald-Leader.
McConnell, meanwhile, continues to emphasize his awareness of the treacherous political environment to supporters.
On Saturday, he e-mailed a fund-raising request asking supporters for "an urgent contribution of $25, $50 or more to help me continue to fight for Kentucky in the U.S. Senate."
"The race for my seat has spilled out of Kentucky and is now the key battle being waged by the liberals who want to have total domination in the House and Senate," McConnell's e-mail said. "In other words, unless we act now, a liberal juggernaut will rule Washington. With no ability to stop their agenda, we could well see higher taxes and liberal social policy we haven't had to endure since the Carter years."
Earlier in the week, in Paintsville, McConnell told reporters he's proud that more than 20,000 donors from around the country have written checks to his campaign, which had collected $17.8 million through September. He said he didn't expect to need help from GOP groups, such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"I think I'll be adequately funded until the election," he said.
McConnell has hit the campaign trail in full force in recent days. Saturday, that took him from shaking hands at Court Days in Mount Sterling to an apple orchard festival in Owensboro and several University of Louisville homecoming events.
Along the way, he and Lunsford both have been attracting an increasing number of journalists who have parachuted into Kentucky to chronicle the race.
Last week ABC News, National Public Radio and the Chicago Tribune dispatched reporters to the Bluegrass State. The New York Times and Politico, a Web site, were in the state Friday and Saturday.
Until the economic turmoil during the last month, this Senate race was on few pundits' radar screens.
Lunsford, a Louisville businessman and admitted political outsider, had lost his previous two races even after spending more than $14 million of his own money. Of the $7.1 million Lunsford has collected through September in this race, $5.5 million is his own money.
But Democrats, as evidenced by a slew of commercials paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, now see potential to exact revenge for 2004, when Republicans defeated Tom Daschle, then the Democratic Senate leader, in South Dakota.
Lunsford also could get additional help from big-name Democrats before Nov. 4. Jerry Lundergan, the former party chairman who traveled with Lunsford and Cleland on Saturday, said he's "diligently working" to bring former President Bill Clinton and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in for events on Lunsford's behalf before the end of the month.
Cleland, who is wheelchair-bound after losing both legs and much of his right arm in Vietnam, heaped criticism on McConnell in front of the mostly Democratic crowd in Mount Sterling and again at the VFW Post in Frankfort.
"I served six years with him. I know Mitch McConnell. That's why I'm here for Bruce Lunsford," said Cleland, who lost re-election in 2002 to Republican Saxby Chambliss, who has recently seen his re-election race get tighter.
Cleland railed against McConnell for running commercials that criticize care of veterans provided in clinics owned by Valor Healthcare, for which Lunsford serves as a director.
"One of the things that really gets me going is when someone like Bruce Lunsford, who has served his country legitimately ... for six years in the National Guard and the Army Reserves, gets attacked by someone like Mitch McConnell. It causes me to come to Kentucky and defend my brother and my friend," he said.
Specifically, Cleland cited McConnell's past votes against funding for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects many veterans, and voting for a bill that cut funding for Tricare, which provides health care for active-duty service members and veterans.
McConnell, however, has touted his record on other military and veterans-related legislation, including funding for a new veterans' hospital in Louisville, a 3.5 percent military pay increase and several spending bills that prohibited Tricare premiums from rising.
McConnell's campaign manager, Justin Brasell, dismissed Cleland's criticism, saying it was only the latest sign that "Lunsford has to bring in these out-of-state liberals to endorse him because the only Kentucky supporter Lunsford has is Lunsford himself."
But Cleland said, "People around the country are excited about this race."
"This has become a national race," he said. "But it really is about what Kentucky wants."