Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, beset by campaign missteps and murmured questions about his mental health, sought to regain his footing today by lashing out at his Democratic opponent and the media.
"Here I am. Take a look!" a combative Bunning instructed reporters. "This year, I worked my tail off in the U.S. Senate. I brought a lot of really good stuff back to Kentucky."
Asked if he would serve a full six-year term if reelected, he said, "Absolutely."
The real problem, Bunning charged, lay with the "lowest of the low" campaign tactics of his rival, state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo. He said Mongiardo sponsored polls suggesting Bunning was "mentally incompetent."
Kim Geveden, Mongiardo's campaign manager, rejected the allegation, saying, "Absolutely, categorically, unequivocally no."
"The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee," Geveden fired back, "needs to get Senator Bunning under control."
Bunning's appearance near his northern Kentucky campaign headquarters marked a rare moment for reporters seeking answers about the former major league baseball star's behavior. Mistrustful of the media, Bunning is so difficult to track, one reporter said today, that "it's like trying to find Osama bin Laden."
Mongiardo, a relative unknown from Hazard, challenged Bunning this year when no established Democrat would. Socially conservative, an expert on health care and able, he says, to function on only a few hours of sleep, Mongiardo has drawn close enough that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is investing the maximum $466,000 allowed and talking of an upset.
Mongiardo, 44, has pulled in money from Barack Obama, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Illinois. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa called this week to say he was coming.
"I think he's in a free fall and we're going straight up," an enthusiastic Mongiardo told Harkin. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate this, sir. I'm really confident we're going to take this."
While Mongiardo said internal polls show him erasing a 20-point Bunning lead, he must reckon with Bunning's dominance in fundraising and name recognition -- and a ballot that Kentucky experts believe favors the Republican.
Not only is President Bush leading by a wide margin here, but a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages and civil unions is also facing a vote. Mongiardo favors the amendment, as does Bunning, but the issue may mobilize strong conservatives unlikely to back a Democrat.
Seeking to regain momentum, Bunning, 73, stepped up a large ad campaign targeting Mongiardo and will embark Monday on a five-day bus tour.
"Bunning came into this thing with a huge advantage, and he's still got the upper hand," said Joe Gershtenson, director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University. He said Bunning's front-runner strategy is aimed at minimizing a repeat of "some classic gaffes."
"Unfortunately for the Bunning campaign," Gershtenson said, "they haven't been all that successful at avoiding those problems."
Bunning opted out of a televised debate with Mongiardo on Tuesday night, leaving Mongiardo with the stage to himself for 30 minutes. Last week, explaining that Senate business kept him in Washington, he joined another debate by satellite. After seeming to read his opening and closing statements from a teleprompter, he refused to tell reporters whether he had done so.
His campaign later conceded the point, but defended it as a permissible use of "notes." Jim Ogle, the senior vice president for news at WKYT, said Bunning's decision was "despicable," telling the Louisville Courier-Journal that it "more than violated the spirit of the rules."
Bunning began traveling with a state trooper, citing unspecified dangers. He told a Paducah television station, "There may be strangers among us." Accompanied by a trooper today, he traced his desire for protection to the same intelligence that caused Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) to close his Senate office.
At one event, Bunning said Mongiardo, whose roots are Italian, looked like one of Saddam Hussein's sons, known for their murderous ways. The campaign initially denied that Bunning had said it but later issued a statement saying it was "sorry if this joke, which got a lot of laughs, offended anyone."
"The easy answer is health, but maybe it's just who he is," Mongiardo said in an interview in Frankfort, the state capital. "It's conduct unbecoming."
Mongiardo is familiar with smears. In 2002, Mongiardo said, his Republican opponent for the state Senate ran an ad that began with a camera image of a man's eyes. As Mongiardo's voice spoke in the background, the camera widened its focus to show that the eyes belonged not to Mongiardo but to Sept. 11, 2001, hijacker Mohamed Atta.
"They try to say because I've got a funny last name and dark hair, I'm with the terrorists," Mongiardo said. "I was born in Hazard, Kentucky, on the Fourth of July. You don't get more American than that."
Atta also figured in a Bunning episode. Bunning told the Lexington Herald-Leader's editorial board last year that he had been briefed about a missed opportunity to stop the hijackers. Atta, he reported, had been captive in an Israeli prison after a bus bombing and was released at President Clinton's request.
It was an urban myth.
During his brief appearance today, Bunning reaffirmed his widely discredited campaign advertisement that accused Mongiardo, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, of being a "Medicaid millionaire." The ad showed make-believe bags of money and a photograph of a fancy house nothing like Mongiardo's rambler in Appalachia.
The ad said he had billed the federal government for $3 million. Mongiardo, who helped start a free health clinic, said later that the amount covered 13 years in a part of the state where tens of thousands of residents can afford no other health care. He said two-thirds of the Medicaid money went to staff and office overhead.
The Herald-Leader called the Medicaid ad "offensive on many levels," not least because it "denigrates dedicated doctors who work for Medicaid's measly pay." The Courier-Journal asked if Bunning is "just becoming a more concentrated version of himself: More arrogant, more prickly?"
Or, the newspaper asked, has he "drifted into territory that indicates a serious health concern?"
Gary W. Moore (R), the Boone County executive, said the behavior is nothing new from Bunning.
"I believe he's the same man I have known throughout my political career," Moore said. "This is just part of who Jim Bunning is."