HARDINSBURG — Both U.S. Senate candidates are runnin' the roads to appeal personally to voters in what they are calling the true battleground of small-town Kentucky, which could decide whether the Republican Senate leader keeps his job.
Democratic contender Bruce Lunsford, who has trailed GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell in most polls, will get some additional help in appealing to Eastern Kentucky Democrats Sunday when New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton headlines a rally for him in Hazard.
Later that day Clinton, who won Kentucky's Democratic presidential primary in May, also is expected stump for Lunsford in Louisville, where Lunsford held a 17-point lead over McConnell in last week's Herald-Leader/WKYT Kentucky Poll.
Lunsford said a groundswell of interest in changing Washington has lifted him to the verge of unseating the state's senior senator.
"Not many people gave me a chance — they might have been hopeful but they didn't give me a chance," he told more than 50 supporters at the Future Farmers of America camp outside Hardinsburg. "This will be the biggest upset this state has ever had."
In his most overtly populist remarks of the race, Lunsford lit into lobbyists and special interests, which he said have corrupted Washington. He then ticked off a list of financial blights on Kentucky, including the rising unemployment rate and the manufacturing and textile jobs that have moved overseas.
"What kind of policy would undercut the middle class of America?" he asked rhetorically. "In this state of Kentucky, people are worried about their jobs. People are worried about their retirement plans ... I haven't seen anybody worried about their country like this in my lifetime."
Lunsford told the Herald-Leader he considers the middle class to be some making less than $250,000 but especially anyone earning under $100,000 a year.
"I think anybody who feels like they're just treading water probably considers themselves the middle class. And I'd say that's a pretty big number right now," he said. "It's not designed by money, it's designed by what your requirements are for your children, for your family, for your lifestyle."
While Lunsford has increasingly attempted to stoke the angst among voters increasingly worried about their jobs and financial security, McConnell has sought to soothe those fears of voters. He points to his clout and seniority in the Senate as Kentucky's biggest asset in Washington.
At George J. Ellis' Drugstore on Glasgow's public square on Wednesday, McConnell said a loss for him on Nov. 4 would be an opportunity squandered for the state.
But he said he feels confident in the strength of support he will receive in rural areas, such as Barren County. Wednesday's stretch of McConnell's two-week bus tour took him from Bowling Green through rural Allen, Barren and Nelson counties up to Simpsonville.
"What we want to do is run up the score. We want to run up the score all across small town and rural Kentucky — which, ironically for a fellow who started off in the state's biggest city, has become my strongest area," said McConnell, who was Jefferson County's judge-executive before becoming a senator in 1984.
McConnell, however, hasn't been addressing the nation's economy or Wall Street crises or responded to Lunsford's jabs on those fronts. He has kept his stump speeches focused on his ability to deliver federal money to Kentucky.
In Simpsonville Wednesday night, he told voters about the money he's directed to Kentucky's universities or to farmers in the form of the tobacco buyout or for infrastructure ranging from roads to developments in and around Fort Knox.
"What I'm talking about has a direct impact on creating jobs in this state, a direct and immediate impact in creating jobs in this state that will not be there if you trade me in for a rookie," he told reporters Wednesday.
A caravan of seven cars with volunteers for McConnell trailed his blue re-election bus, carrying not only campaign staffers and college Republican volunteers, but at least three lobbyists: Kelley Abell, whose clients include the Kentucky Hospital Association and several health companies, Marc A. Wilson, who lobbies for Delta Air Lines and several ad firms, and Stephen Huffman, who in addition to being a registered lobbyist is a member of the state GOP's executive committee.
"I love doing advance work for campaigns," said Wilson, who carried McConnell signs into the Glasgow drug store. "It's just a lot of fun."
A flurry of new ads hit the airwaves Wednesday, including several spots from Lunsford's campaign.
One uses hound dogs shown chasing a man in a suit that's supposed to be McConnell.
"For too long Mitch McConnell has been running away from his record. But now Kentucky is closing in," the ad says. "Bailing out Wall Street, tax breaks for Big Oil. ... Mitch runs and Mitch hides, but we're going to catch him."
McConnell, who famously used hound dogs in his first Senate campaign in 1984, said "that dog won't hunt" this time.
"He needs to do something to divert attention away from his own record," he said. "My record is pretty clear: I've had 8,000 votes over the years, and everybody knows where I stand and they know I'm the leader of the Senate and they know I deliver for Kentucky."
The other ads show prominent Democrats touting Lunsford. One features clips of Hillary Clinton's remarks from a September speech she made on Lunsford's behalf. And a 60-second spot consists of testimonials from former Democratic Governors Julian Carroll, John Y. Brown Jr., Martha Layne Collins and Paul Patton.