Candidates prepare final salvos

Largely ignoring his challenger and the souring economy, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell is banking on his seniority and position as Senate Republican leader to be the most persuasive argument to voters on Nov. 4.

McConnell, in the final two weeks of his toughest reelection campaign, will deliver that message in person in part of his statewide bus tour that kicks off Monday in Green County and the southern Kentucky region.

Meanwhile, his Democratic challenger, Bruce Lunsford, has rolled out a number of themes in commercials (such as "Don't get McConned" and the "How are you doing?") aimed at painting McConnell as being absorbed in the Washington scene while failing to do the people's business.

Lunsford's overarching pitch to voters is that he's not McConnell.

"Even if you haven't met me and you haven't spent any time with me, remember this first thing: I'm running against Mitch McConnell," Lunsford said to open his remarks to 250 Democrats in a Madison County fairgrounds livestock pavilion last week.

Lunsford, too, will be making his closing arguments directly to voters over the next two weeks. His task is to convince anxious voters who feel hammered by rising costs of living and an unstable economy that he's a legitimate alternative to McConnell.

"Let me tell you the difference between Mitch McConnell and me: I'm not a debater, I'm a doer," he said in Richmond. "I think I can easily say on this stage that in the state of Kentucky, no individual has produced more jobs ... than I have. Nobody."

Lunsford, a Louisville businessman who has pumped $5.5 million of his own money into his campaign, is most known for creating the nursing home company Vencor. Lately, he has had to respond to McConnell's commercials criticizing Valor Healthcare, a company on whose board Lunsford sits, for its care of veterans.

But other than a couple vague references to "my opponent with plenty of money" McConnell spends little time talking about Lunsford. And speaking to reporters in Paintsville, he downplayed any suggestion that the television portion of his campaign has been unfairly negative.

"He likes to talk about what I've been doing for the last 24 years. I think Kentuckians are entitled to know what he's been doing for the last 24 years so they can make a comparison," McConnell said. "A way of looking at it is I've been working for the people of Kentucky, he's been working for himself."

Big man on campus

McConnell often spends part of his speeches explaining his leadership position, which he describes as being the head of a bunch of "class president-types all with pretty sharp elbows and pretty big egos."

He is only the second Kentuckian to be a party leader in the U.S. Senate. The only other was Alben Barkley who was Democratic leader from 1937 to 1947.

"We aren't a big state," McConnell told more than 60 people at the Johnson County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. "For Kentucky to have influence in Washington, we've got to rise to the top."

As he frequently does, McConnell took credit for directing $500 million in federal funds to Kentucky cities, universities and state programs.

Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, said that, as a result, McConnell "is approaching the level of Henry Clay in importance to our state."

Rogers, who was first elected to Congress four years before McConnell in 1980, underscored the importance of experience by recalling how McConnell had little sway until after his first six-year term.

"For the first several years, being a low member of the totem pole, frankly, he wasn't that much help," Rogers said.

McConnell also said his position helps block legislation that he considers wrong for Kentucky.

During his remarks to the Kentucky Coal Association in Lexington on Friday, McConnell cited last year's energy bill and this summer's legislation aimed at curbing global warming. He said the net effect of the first draft of those bills would have driven up Kentucky's relatively cheap energy costs.

"He's been a very strong supporter of the Kentucky coal industry, so it's vital to our industry that he stays," said Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Caylor. "All of these bills that come up, his role, hopefully would be to soften the impact on the oil, natural gas and coal fossil fuels."

Applying pressure

Lunsford has countered McConnell's leadership argument by saying he has contributed to the economic turmoil that has shaken up Wall Street, Washington and the country's political landscape over the last month.

"If he wants to take credit for leadership over the last six years, I'd be happy to give it to him because he's taken us right over the cliff," Lunsford said before the Richmond rally Thursday.

Two days later, at a Mount Sterling Democratic breakfast, Lunsford said regardless of how much money McConnell has brought the state, he supported the war in Iraq and the $700 billion financial bailout that will cost $2,100 and $2,300 per person, respectively.

Although Lunsford has trailed in most polls so far, even McConnell agrees that the race has tightened in recent weeks, which has gotten the attention of national Democrats.

Over the weekend, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland campaigned with Lunsford.

"Mitch McConnell has made the fatal mistake of representing consistently the Republican White House (and) Washington in Kentucky. It's time we send a native Kentuckian to Washington to represent Kentuckians in Washington," Cleland said at the Frankfort VFW Saturday.

It remains to be seen how strong of an anti-incumbent mood Kentucky voters are in. Both Lunsford and McConnell will be fighting over the same group of conservative Democrats, especially in rural areas. Many are voters who have routinely supported McConnell in the past but who have been hardest hit by high gas and food prices.

"I've not made my mind up in that race," said Stewart Morton, a Mount Sterling Democrat and farmer who has seen his fertilizer costs triple and cattle feed prices jump, too. "I'll probably vote for him over McConnell. I've listened to McConnell over the years, and at this time, I think we need someone different."