BOWLING GREEN, KY., NOV. 2 -- Once again, a television advertisement has captured the spirit of Kentucky politics. The ad portrays Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wallace Wilkinson repeatedly swatting a reporter in the head.
"Mr. Wilkinson, when do you plan to fully disclose your income tax returns?" asks a reporter thrusting a microphone at the unseen candidate.
"Mr. Wilkinson. Did you know you may have violated the law when you sold Kentucky farmland to foreign interests?"
The blow knocks the reporter to the ground, where he breathlessly fires off yet another question: "Mr. Wilkinson, why did your company roll back odometers on leased cars and wiretap phone lines?"
A final swat silences the reporter. And a voice warns, "If that's the type of leader we want running Kentucky, be prepared to get hit."
The ad is paid for by the campaign of John Harper, Republican gubernatorial nominee. It is based loosely on the kind of embarrassing facts that would ruin most candidacies.
But Wilkinson, a 44-year-old self-made millionaire, is expected to win a landslide victory in Tuesday's general election here and replace Gov. Martha Layne Collins (D), who's prohibited by law from succeeding herself.
"We think we have a shot, a good shot, at carrying all 120 counties," Wilkinson said after the final rally of his campaign Sunday night. "We know we will get better than 100 counties. It's just a question now of if we will break the records."
No Republican has won the Kentucky governorship since 1967. The record Wilkinson would like to break was set in 1975 by Julian Carroll, who won 100 counties and 62.9 percent of the vote.
In the only other gubernatorial election Tuesday, Mississippi Democrat Ray Mabus, a 39-year-old progressive, was favored to defeat Republican Jack Reed, a Tupelo businessman, by a smaller margin.
Kentucky politics are seldom inspiring. In recent years, voters here have become accustomed to highly personal, negative television ad campaigns. In 1984, Republicans ran ads showing bloodhounds searching for then-Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D) in a successful attempt to elect Republican Mitch McConnell. Last spring, former governor John Y. Brown Jr. was portrayed as a high-living jet-setter by one opponent in an ad modeled after a television show, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Harper's ads are in that tradition.
Wilkinson, who grew up poor in rural Casey County, is a genuine Horatio Alger story. He's built a multimillion-dollar banking, hotel, land and real estate development business out of a small bookstore operation. He was such an underdog in the May Democratic primary that he escaped the kind of scrutiny most gubernatorial candidates routinely receive.
He won that election by letting his better-known opponents destroy themselves while he campaigned on antiestablishment themes and promised to bring new ideas, including a lottery, to state government.
The press, Republicans and law enforcement agencies converged on him after the primary. They found a pattern of big business deals and some questionable practices.
The operation that began Wilkinson's empire, Wallace's Book Store, was forced to pay $44,641 in back federal taxes. Its president, Gary Stafford, Wilkinson's brother-in-law, pleaded guilty to illegal wiretapping and rolling back odometers on company-leased cars.
Wilkinson, who had campaigned as a hands-on manager, said he knew nothing of the practices and had turned over bookstore operations to his brother-in-law long ago.
But that wasn't all. State GOP Chairman Bob Gable hired a private detective firm to investigate the Democratic nominee. Gable went so far as to suggest that there was "substantial reason to suspect foul play" in the death of a former Wilkinson business partner, Jerome Jernigan, who died while awaiting trial on charges that he kidnaped Wilkinson in 1985 and received $500,000 ransom.
Harper, the GOP nominee, was ill-prepared to take advantage of the bounty. His campaign was underfinanced and poorly led. As of mid-October, he had raised $225,000, compared to $6 million for Wilkinson.
He acknowledged that he wasn't too exciting on the stump. "I say John Harper isn't just another pretty face. Maybe I could get Robert Redford to play me sometime," he said. "People look at me and say: 'Absolutely devoid of charisma.' But what are we selling -- charisma or responsible, honest, forthright leadership?"
Wilkinson's campaign, by contrast, was well-organized and professional. Some complained that the race was between one candidate who was too slick and one who wasn't slick enough. The campaign wasn't so much dirty as just plain mean. When Harper was asked during a debate about names he had called Wilkinson, he turned to the Democrat and said, "I don't remember calling you a Nazi, but I did call you a weasel once."
In Mississippi, where the debate has been more civilized, the state is almost guaranteed a return to the progressive policies of Gov. William A. Allain's predecessor, William Winter. But the indication is that Ray Mabus, state auditor, will keep the governor's office in Democratic hands, as it has been since Reconstruction, despite a late surge by Republican Jack Reed.
Reed, 63, has been a leader in economic development, education and desegregation efforts in his area.
Little known outside his home area at the start of his first campaign, Reed has become an effective stump speaker. In the closing phase of the race, he hammered hard at Mabus' promise to raise teachers' salaries, saying that despite Mabus' denials, this would require a steep tax increase.
A Mason-Dixon Poll last week gave Mabus an 11-point lead, down from an early lead of twice that size. One Mabus strategist explained the tightening race this way: "Reed is a good candidate, people like him, he comes across well. He took on the challenger's role and forced Mabus into an incumbent's position. He socked it to us subtly, especially saying Mabus was making too many promises."
Reed, a moderate on racial issues who is credited by officials in Tupelo with playing a vital role in keeping public schools open during the furor over desegregation, has bid openly for black votes -- but apparently with meager results. Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Research said Mabus was winning 78 percent of the black vote compared to 9 percent for Reed -- "which is actually pretty good for a Republican" -- with 13 percent undecided. Reed has said, "My biggest handicap in getting the black vote is the Republican label and Ronald Reagan."
Last week the Greenwood Voters' League, considered the most influential endorsing group for blacks, threw its support behind Mabus -- after opposing him in the primary and the runoff. "We have to yield and follow," League President David Jordan told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
The League refused to endorse Wil Colom, the black Republican candidate for state treasurer, who would, if successful, be the first black elected to statewide office since Reconstruction. Jordan told the Clarion-Ledger, "We are mature enough to realize the votes are just not there to elect a black statewide."