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Governor's Race Splits Ky. GOP
"We've come through some terrible politics of destruction," Fletcher said in reference to his own troubles in a fast-paced defense of his record. He spoke of tax cuts, smaller personnel rolls and money shipped to the counties. He threw in a reference to biofuels, saying with a smile, "One thing we're good at in Kentucky is fermentation and distillation."
Fletcher was not looking nearly so smooth before the campaign. After promising to end what he called "good ol' boy" politics, the former Baptist preacher alienated legislators with an aloof style and a campaign to install loyalists in merit-based state jobs. A grand jury identified a systematic strategy approved by Fletcher that misused state resources and personnel.
"Entire cabinets and departments were tasked with carrying out various parts of this illegal plan," the grand jury wrote. "Those who got in the way of the plan were fired or moved."
After a judge ruled that Fletcher could not be put on trial while in office, the Democratic attorney general made a deal, dropping the criminal charges in return for Fletcher's signed admission that "the evidence strongly indicates wrongdoing by this administration."
In his campaign literature and on the stump, however, Fletcher calls the affair a witch hunt.
Northup, feeling bruised by her final House campaign and grief-stricken by the death of one of her six children from a heart ailment, was not looking for another race. But leaders of the party, widely believed to include McConnell, urged her to challenge Fletcher, foreseeing an entirely winnable contest.
Republican Sen. Jim Bunning has endorsed her, as has Fletcher's own 2003 running mate, Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, but Fletcher's strong campaign and the support of dozens of local Republican leaders have kept McConnell publicly neutral. Yet some Republicans worry that if Fletcher triumphs in the primary, voters would have a reason to vote Democratic the next two Novembers.
"Say he gets 45 percent of the vote on Tuesday. That's still 55 percent of the vote in his own party that he didn't get. Will they show up in November?" asked Joe Gershtenson, director of Eastern Kentucky University's Center for Kentucky History and Politics. "The Democrats will hit Fletcher very hard. They will turn his whole 2003 campaign theme right back on him, in terms of cleaning up the mess in Frankfort."
Turnout is expected to be low on Tuesday, making forecasts tricky. After a campaign of sharp elbows, Republicans are organizing a unity gathering to show they can pull together, but no one expects the hard feelings to fade so quickly, especially if Fletcher wins.
"If Ernie happens to be our nominee, the Democrats are going to defeat him in the fall," predicted Casey County Republican Chairman Jeffrey Buis. "And we can't afford to have McConnell beaten to death for a year. They would target McConnell and say, 'An indicted governor. No more of this.' "
Northup is pressing ahead, hoping a strong showing in the cities will carry her past the incumbent or at least into a runoff. On her final campaign swing, Northup accepted hugs and good wishes from supporters. She asked them to talk to their friends, go to the polls -- and say a prayer.