Opinion writer
It was a fight night in Kentucky on Monday, as Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes faced off against Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). The race is one of the most-watched Senate battles in the country. (Jackie Kucinich/The Washington Post)

Last night Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes held their only debate of the Kentucky Senate race. The national press coverage has designated the headline moment to be Grimes’ continued refusal to say whether she voted for President Obama. Grimes pushed back by citing the “privacy of the ballot box,” and refused to budge, despite being pressed repeatedly.

McConnell campaign operatives tried hard to stoke the impression that this was the defining moment of the evening, underscoring the manufactured quality that continues to characterize this story ever since Grimes first declined to answer this question. No question, Grimes did screw up by pulling an unsightly homina homina homina when she was first confronted with this, and it’s obviously a legitimate question. But the media pile-on that has followed is unquestionably over the top. NBC’s Chuck Todd got it all going by claiming she had “disqualified” herself, which the McConnell camp promptly put in an ad, which generated more coverage of how devastating this was for Grimes, which then primed news outlets to grant outsized attention to this question when it was posed again last night.

And, in a tidy illustration of the self-contained, self-reinforcing nature of such narratives, the McConnell campaign is now circulating video of Morning Joe talkers bubbling over with ridicule for Grimes’ non-answer last night. Todd’s original “disqualified” claim was made (where else) on Morning Joe.

But how important will this really prove?

Grimes supporters are pushing back by arguing that some of the local coverage either didn’t mention this moment at all, or downplayed it in favor of a focus on issues. The Grimes campaign has posted videos of newscasts from the CBS affiliate, the NBC affiliate, and the ABC affiliate that don’t treat this as headline news at all, instead discussing the clash over issues such as the minimum wage, jobs, and coal.

A Louisville Courier-Journal write-up of the debate buried the exchange over Grimes’s vote, as did a Lexington Herald-Leader write-up. This is not intended as a comprehensive overview of Kentucky coverage; merely as a suggestion that maybe, just maybe, the question of Grimes’ vote on Obama may not be quite as important in Kentucky as national outlets have suggested.

Plainly, Grimes doesn’t want to answer the Obama vote question because Republicans are trying to bait her into claiming she did, to create more fodder (which would also promptly go right into an ad) for McConnell’s argument that she is nothing more than a stooge for the president. Indeed, this whole affair reminds me of Josh Marshall’s take on the real purpose behind attacks on John Kerry’s war record in 2004. The idea, as Marshall described it, is that such attacks aren’t just about their substance; they are also about getting an opponent to back down and look weak in the process.

I suspect the Grimes campaign sees the current dust-up in similar terms: If Grimes were to admit now that she voted for Obama, that would not only give McConnell the sound bite he wants; it would show her backing down in the face of his attacks after waffling and appearing too weak to stand behind her own vote. I don’t know whether Grimes will continue refusing to answer the question or not, but her answer last night suggests her campaign isn’t willing to follow this script.

By the way: Last night, McConnell engaged in some evasions of his own, but those evasions concern the fate of health coverage for hundreds of thousands of people, so, you know, nothing to see here. Which brings us to our next item.

* McCONNELL STRUGGLES WITH OBAMACARE ANSWER: In another key debate moment, Mitch McConnell made the amusing claim that it would be fine if the website for Kentucky’s state exchange (through which hundreds of thousands have gotten coverage) remained, as long as the health law were repealed “root and branch.” As Sahil Kapur notes:

If Obamacare is repealed, then the federal subsidies for the coverage expansion would disappear and Kentucky would either have to strip that insurance for recent recipients or foot the large bill through the state’s budget. McConnell did not say how that coverage would be funded if Obamacare is repealed.

Grimes has been generally reticent on the ACA, but last night she slammed McConnell’s “fantasyland” answer, claiming: “I will not be a senator that rips that insurance from their hand.”

* BESHEAR RIPS McCONNELL ON OBAMACARE: In response to McConnell’s claim, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, perhaps the most outspoken proponent of the law in the south, released this statement:

“Tonight, Mitch McConnell looked into the camera and misled Kentucky about his plan to take Kynect from more than 500,000 Kentuckians who have gained health care in the last year. Mitch told Kentuckians he’d keep the website up, while pulling the plug on federal funding, tax credits, and tearing down a marketplace that has made Kentucky a model of success for the nation.”

This again underscores that Republicans feel the political need to leave the vague impression that people can keep the good stuff in Obamacare without the bad — another reminder that the politics of the law are more complicated than many pundits claim.

 * DEMOCRATS SLIPPING IN COLORADO: Two new polls yesterday showed GOPer Cory Gardner leading Senator Mark Udall. FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten explains that at this point, “it’s hard to deny the trend in Gardner’s direction,” and this makes it marginally more likely that Republicans could win the six seats they need to take the Senate without having to wait for run-offs in Louisiana and Georgia to be resolved.

The average of polls has Gardner up 1.6 points, and the major forecasts have shifted in the GOP’s direction.

* BUT DEMS HAVE HIDDEN EDGE IN COLORADO: David Drucker has a useful explainer on a hidden advantage Dems have in the state: For the first time, Colorado has full vote by mail, which means all registered voters will be sent ballots without requesting them.

In Colorado in particular, the Democrat’s chances of holding on despite trailing in polls will turn on getting out votes from infrequent or lower-propensity voters. Vote-by-mail could make that easier and enlarge the electorate. Whether that will be enough is another question.

* EARLY VOTING FAVORS DEMOCRATS: Carl Hulse brings the new data:

In North Carolina, which permits early voting, 42,230 people had requested ballots as of Monday. Of that group, 17,364 did not vote in 2010, and among them, Democrats outnumber Republicans, 39 percent to 32 percent…The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reports that more than 21,000 Iowans who did not vote four years ago have already cast ballots: 53 percent of them are registered Democrats, 28 percent are unaffiliated, and 19 percent are Republicans.

Getting out people who did not vote in 2010 is key to the entire Dem strategy, and to any hopes Dems have of holding the Senate.

* SOUTH DAKOTA RACE IS FREE-FOR-ALL: The New York Times has an interesting overview of the three-way South Dakota Senate race, reporting that some Democrats still think that the independent, former GOP Senator Larry Presser, has a better chance of defeating GOP frontrunner Mike Rounds than liberal Dem Rick Weiland does. Weiland’s response:

A former aide to Senator Tom Daschle, Mr. Weiland has run a liberal campaign attacking moneyed interests that is more in the tradition of the populist William Jennings Bryan than William Jefferson Clinton. “The national party has this view that in states like South Dakota you’ve got to run in the center or you can’t win,” Mr. Weiland said. “And you know what: They don’t know South Dakota.”

As I’ve reported, national Democrats will spend their resources on dragging down the Republican frontrunner, gambling that a win by either Pressler (who might caucus with them) or Weiland could complicate the GOP quest for a majority.

* DEMS BLAST GEORGIA REPUBLICAN OVER OUTSOURCING: Dem Senate candidate Michelle Nunn is up with a new ad that contains footage of GOPer David Perdue telling a local TV station that he is “proud” of his outsourcing past. This footage could prove especially potent in a state with such high unemployment, but Nunn trails Perdue by nearly four points in the polling average, which is a lot of ground to make up.