In Ky. House Race, GOP Happy to Run on Bush's record

In the heated campaign for Kentucky governor last November, the Democrat tried to run against President Bush's economic policies and lost big-time.

Now, in a special election for the House seat vacated by the gubernatorial winner, the Republican candidate is only too happy to make the Feb. 17 contest a referendum on the president, who is hugely popular in the Bluegrass State.

GOP state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (search) ran a TV ad showing her with the president at the White House and portraying her as "cut from the same cloth" as Bush.

Kerr is up against Democrat Ben Chandler (search), who lost the governor's race to Republican Ernie Fletcher.

"In the governor's race that Chandler just ran, he made his opposition of Bush a centerpiece," said Billy Piper, Kerr's campaign manager. "Senator Kerr is making an equally big centerpiece out of her support for the president in her campaign."

Whoever wins the special election will have to run again in November, and possibly in a primary in May.

The contest later this month is a chance to break a string of losses for Kentucky Democrats, who had held the 6th District seat before Fletcher won it and had held the governorship for a generation. The party also faces the retirement of the lone Kentucky Democrat in Congress, when Ken Lucas leaves office in November.

A victory for Chandler would be "a huge shot in the arm" for state Democrats, said Dale Emmons, a Democratic consultant.

"If Chandler wins that race, Democrats from coast to coast will taunt Bush with it," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Chandler, a 43-year-old former state auditor and attorney general, suffered a bruising, 10-point loss to Fletcher. He became the first Democrat in Kentucky since 1967 to lose an election for governor, the office held twice by his late grandfather, A.B. "Happy" Chandler.

During his campaign for governor, Chandler blamed Bush's economic policies for unemployment. But Bush came to the state twice for Fletcher, making two stops in the weekend before the election.

Terry McBrayer, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a former Kentucky Democratic chairman, said the national party watched the governor's race for a sign that Bush was vulnerable on such issues as the economy and the cost of prescription drugs.

"For whatever reason, national issues did not resonate," McBrayer said. "Bush's popularity in Kentucky was extremely high, so the issues did not stick."

A poll taken for The Associated Press just before the gubernatorial election showed Bush with the support of 64 percent of those surveyed.

The district in Kentucky's Bluegrass region of horse farms and tobacco fields includes the state's No. 2 city, Lexington, and the capital, Frankfort. The district's Democrats outnumber Republicans but freely cross lines. Bush carried the state by 15 percentage points over Al Gore in 2000, and Fletcher carried the district against Chandler in November.

Chandler has backed off on Bush this time and has been reaching out to veterans. One of his commercials criticizes the government's decision to close a veterans hospital in Lexington, and he endorsed presidential candidate Wesley Clark, a retired Army general.

During his two terms as attorney general, Chandler feuded with Fletcher's Democratic predecessor, Gov. Paul Patton. Chandler obtained indictments against Patton's chief of staff and three others for allegedly breaking campaign finance laws in Patton's 1995 election. But Patton pardoned all three before trial.

In campaigning for Congress, Chandler touts his political independence. "Do you want somebody who is going to be a tool of the people who are in power right now?" Chandler said of Kerr. "She's arguing that you need to send a rubber stamp up there."

Kerr, 49, is also part of a political family. Her brother, Larry Forgy, was the GOP nominee for governor in 1995. But she is not widely known outside her state Senate district in Lexington.

And turnout could be low, since this a special election with only one contest on the ballot.

Military retiree Percy Hacker, a registered Democrat who nevertheless voted Republican in the governor's race, had a cordial exchange with Kerr as she campaigned last week at an Elks Lodge in Richmond. But he said later he was unmoved.

"I about made up my mind I wasn't going to vote. I just wasn't interested," Hacker said.