Just a few weeks ago, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) looked like a lock for reelection, with a huge lead in the polls over his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo. But then Bunning started behaving . . . oddly.

The one-term incumbent (and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher) has stalked out of a news interview, compared his dark-complexioned opponent to one of Saddam Hussein's sons, and accused Mongiardo or a member of his campaign staff of roughing up Bunning's wife at an event over the summer -- an accusation Mongiardo's staff calls "sad and untrue." Bunning has also beefed up his security detail, telling a Paducah TV station, "There may be strangers among us."

On Monday, Bunning declined to show up in Kentucky, as agreed, for a debate with Mongiardo. Instead, he beamed in via satellite from the Republican National Committee's TV studio in Washington and refused to let a neutral observer monitor his participation. Bunning's campaign manager, David Young, later acknowledged that Bunning had read his opening and closing statements off a teleprompter. Mongiardo's campaign said that violated the debate's rules.

All of which has prompted two things: a competitive Senate race in Kentucky and questions about Bunning.

Based on polls showing Bunning's lead shrinking to single digits, Democrats have pumped $200,000 into the race in the past five days and may invest more in hopes of grabbing an unexpected seat. "It's a wild card," Sen. Jon S. Corzine (N.J.), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's chairman, said in an interview yesterday. "Kentucky is winnable. We think this is a vulnerable incumbent."

An editorial published yesterday in the Louisville Courier-Journal -- the state's largest paper -- questioned Bunning's mental health: "Is he, as he ages, just becoming a more concentrated version of himself: more arrogant, more prickly?" the editorial asked. "Certainly that would be a normal occurrence. Or is his increasing belligerence an indication of something worse? Has Sen. Bunning drifted into territory that indicates a serious health concern?"

Calls to Bunning's campaign were not returned yesterday.

NRA Officially Backs President

The National Rifle Association finally made the obvious official: It endorsed President Bush. The group's backing promises him help getting out the pro-gun vote and a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign. Kerry, a longtime hunter, has moved to the right of many Democrats on gun issues. But unlike Bush, he supports legislation that would require gunmakers to add child safety locks to guns, and he opposes a proposal to shield manufacturers from lawsuits stemming from gun crimes.

Kerry has been endorsed by one of the NRA's nemeses, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The gun-control group announced that it is teaming up with the Million Mom March to launch a television ad criticizing Bush for not urging Congress to renew a recently elapsed ban on some kinds of semiautomatic weapons.

Race Close in Cyberspace

The presidential race is pretty much a tie -- even in cyberspace.

President Bush's and John F. Kerry's campaign Web sites ran neck and neck in September, each attracting around 2.5 million visitors. Kerry had a slight edge, with 2,681,000 readers who spent, on average, 7 minutes 29 seconds perusing his site, according to the independent research firm Nielsen/NetRatings. Bush logged 2,453,000 visitors who hung around for an average of 6 minutes 54 seconds.

Kerry's total was down from August, when a little more than 3 million people clicked on his site. Bush saw his readership climb by 200,000 from the previous month.

Political researcher Brian Faler and staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

Democratic Senate candidate Daniel Mongiardo waits in a Lexington, Ky., television studio for a debate with Sen. Jim Bunning, who decided to appear from Washington. Bunning said his wife was roughed up by Mongiardo or a Mongiardo staffer.