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Battle for Senate Gets Closer, and Lower

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2004; 9:13 AM

In a year when early analysis showed Republicans having a definite edge, the fight for the Senate could come down to a Republican-held state that nobody expected to even be close. In Kentucky, the prospect of defeating incumbent Jim Bunning has Democrats all worked up.

"What a dumb a_ _," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse wrote in the subject line of an e-mail he blasted to reporters yesterday. The e-mail referenced a Thursday story in the Lexington Herald-Leader in which Bunning referred to Sept. 11, 2001, as "Nov. 11."

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"Jim Bunning has lost his mind -- says terrorists attacked us on November 11th," read the subject line of another Woodhouse e-mail to reporters.

A couple days ago, the DSCC e-mailed to reporters a picture of Bunning standing between two handicapped parking spaces during a news conference. The clear implication is that, well, Bunning is off his rocker. In fact, the Democrats have made this a central theme of the campaign against Bunning, a former major league pitcher who is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Bunning denies that there is anything wrong with him, but Democrats have been emboldened by media reports and editorials like this one from the Louisville Courier-Journal raising questions about Bunning's sometimes odd behavior.

Earlier this month, Salon.com, a left-leaning Internet magazine, wrote: "Over the past few months, Bunning has angrily pushed away reporters, exchanged testy words with a questioner at a Rotary Club and stuck to brief, heavily scripted remarks at campaign events, delivered in a halting monotone. The former major league baseball star now travels the Bluegrass State with a special police escort, at taxpayer expense. His explanation? Al-Qaida may be out to get him.

"This apparent fear of the spontaneous has spurred rumors in Kentucky that Bunning, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, is suffering from some sort of dementia, perhaps Alzheimer's."

On Wednesday, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon S. Corzine (N.J.) directly questioned Bunning's "ability to serve" in an article appearing in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Dan Allen said the accusations just show desperation on the Democrats' part.

"I'm not surprised," Allen said. "I've been around for a few cycles, and I've seen how low the Democrats can stoop."

Woodhouse responded: "The level of rhetoric back and forth in this campaign season is unfortunate. But you know what? Dems have just sat here and taken it from Republicans for years. I don't think we've ever used the type of tactics that people like Karl Rove and Lee Atwater and people of that ilk have used. . . . So, yeah, I regret the whole level of rhetoric, but I sure don't regret fighting fire with fire."

Democrats say Republicans have no room for righteous indignation. Just yesterday, Bunning's Kentucky colleague, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, said Democratic candidate Dan Mongiardo was "so dumb you have to doubt his mental capacity to serve" because Mongiardo campaigned with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who opposed a tobacco buyout favored by many Kentucky farmers.

Even worse, Democrats say, Mongiardo has been forced to endure attacks on his sexual orientation. As recently as this week, a top Kentucky Republican official twice referred to Mongiardo, a 44-year-old physician, as "limp-wristed." (Mongiardo denied in a press conference in Kentucky on Thursday that he is homosexual.)

Allen says Bunning has neither condoned nor repudiated such comments and believes reporters should direct questions on the subject to those who make the comments. "Our reaction is, Senator Bunning and his supporters know that he is in trouble and this type of character assassination, this type of clear effort to malign somebody is nothing but a diversionary tactic to change the topic in this campaign, which has been centered on his erratic behavior," Woodhouse said. "They want to change the conversation in the last four days."

Why has it gotten so nasty? Well, competition appears to bring out the worst in folks, and that is a bipartisan trait.

A poll taken last week by the Louisville Courier Journal -- the most recent nonpartisan poll -- puts Bunning up by 6 points and outside the margin of error, but a new poll by the Democratic polling firm Garin-Hart-Yang puts the race at a dead heat, 44 for Bunning to Mongiardo's 43, with more than enough undecided votes -- 13 percent -- to keep everyone on their toes. In just the last week, political analyst Charlie Cook moved the race from "likely Republican" to "leaning Republican" and then to "toss-up" on Tuesday.

The other competitive surprises are Oklahoma, where recent polls have shown Democrat Rep. Brad Carson in a dead heat against Republican former congressman Tom Coburn to replace retiring incumbent Don Nickles, and Colorado, where the race between Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Pete Coors to replace retiring GOP incumbent Ben Nighthorse Campbell is considered to be close.

These developments have buoyed Democrats since five of the most competitive eight or nine races are in the South, where Republican strength has long been increasing. Now, election analysts have added these three Republican states to the toss-up category. (The others are Alaska, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Dakota and South Carolina.)

It's still an uphill fight for the Democrats to retake the Senate, but winning Kentucky would help.

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